Editorial | 'Top secret' doesn't cut it

Editorial | 'Top secret' doesn't cut it

Aren't the people who pay the bills for the Urbana schools entitled to know the reasons behind the recent administrative shake-up?

There's a lot going on in the Urbana schools these days, apparently not too much of it coming down on the positive side of the ledger.

Why else would the school board clean house in the upper administration during the school year, unilaterally dismissing a veteran superintendent and bringing back a retired superintendent to run the show?

That, of course, is speculation based on the board's action. But all the public can rely on at this point is speculation because the elected, seven-member board has provided no substantive explanation for its stunning actions.

All the board members have done is issue a couple of statements containing cliches about their commitment to providing a solid education for all children and their acknowledgement that there is no good time to "change administrators."

Gee, thanks for stating the obvious.

Now how about providing a substantive explanation for this drastic change in district leadership? After all, this is a school system funded by the taxpayers and overseen by an elected board. That makes it the public's business.

Instead, board members appear to have taken the position that since no one can make them talk, they have no moral obligation to explain themselves.

Indeed, the only real discussion of what happened stems from the claim by former Superintendent Don Owen that he was taken by surprise when he learned of his dismissal. Board members dispute that contention, indicating in a statement that Owen was informed Nov. 20 that it was unlikely his contract would be renewed.

It's worth noting that stating an intention to not renew a contract is different from ousting a top administrator while that contract remains in force.

However, it seems clear that Owen knew he was on thin ice and why he was on thin ice, even if he did not anticipate the board's sudden action.

Three administrators are out — Owen, Assistant Superintendent Kathy Barbour and Assistant Superintendent Samuel Byndom. Owen and Barbour have been placed on paid leave.

Byndom's removal is unrelated to the board action. He was suspended after being implicated in an attempt to electronically eavesdrop on a private board discussion of personnel, one that apparently included him. He faces a felony eavesdropping charge in connection with the Oct. 28 meeting.

In another display of the opposite of transparency, the board won't say whether Byndom has been placed on paid or unpaid leave as a consequence of his alleged criminal behavior.

The board's silence, of course, does not end the discussion, it encourages it in the unfortunate form of rumor and speculation that always fill the official silence public officials wrap around controversies they don't wish to discuss.

So, naturally, public speculation turns to the ongoing fiasco that marks the district's new disciplinary policy.

Known as "restorative justice," it is intended to reduce the number of out-of-school suspensions given students — many of them minorities — who misbehave.

The issue has been in the news since last spring when former Superintendent Owen announced that he was replacing the deans who enforce the rules after teachers bring student misbehavior to their attention.

The new plan, which was implemented at the beginning of the school year, has all the earmarks of a trainwreck. Students, parents and teachers have complained of the chaos that's been generated, to the point that board President John Dimit publicly denounced the manner in which this new program was implemented.

Is that at the root of Dr. Owen's problems? Or is it something else?

Owen made a point in a statement he issued to state that he served with "honesty, integrity, fiscal responsibility and compassion."

Is his word choice a rebuttal to board charges that he didn't meet those standards?

Once again, no one is saying.

The people making these decisions need to be clear about why they did what they did. Until they do, they've failed their duty to the public they purport to serve.

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