Cooper: School district's continued communication problem

Cooper: School district's continued communication problem

May 23rd, 2017 by Clint Cooper in Opinion Free Press

The Hamilton County Department of Education apparently has learned little from former Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith's handling of a Dec. 2015 rape case.

Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Times Free Press.

A paper trail of public records indicates the Hamilton County Board of Education and Hamilton County Department of Education have not learned communication lessons stemming from the poor handling of the fallout from the Ooltewah High School rape case in December 2015.

In the most recent example, the district charged the Chattanooga Times Free Press $176 to print three email threads, which entailed 12 printed pages (many pages of which were duplicates of previous emails). The district claimed it took an employee who earns $35 an hour six hours to retrieve the three threads.


We have no way of disputing such a use of time and pay by the district, but the contents of the emails make us wonder how anxious the district was to have the contents known. In the emails from Hamilton County Board of Education Chairman Steve Highlander, he asked school board members to keep public records — information about the search for a new superintendent for Hamilton County Schools — private.

More Ooltewah rape case stories

This continues the type of behavior the school district showed in December when its spokeswoman told the newspaper it would cost $1,903 for district employees to compile public records of the complaints that had been made against local school bus drivers in the past five years (following the Nov. 21 crash that killed six Woodmore School students) and which ones had been shared with buses operator Durham School Services.

When that amount was proposed, the newspaper amended its request to one year of complaints. Instead of reducing the cost, it increased to $2,525, the reason given that it would take a $45-an-hour employee 45 hours to pull records covering 1,688 pages of complaints, among other costs. And since the district would be prohibited from charging for records they pulled to review or have the school board review, evidently no one in the district had thought to ask to review such vital records after the crash.

Wow and wow!

Following the Dec. 2015 pool cue rape of an Ooltewah basketball player, then-Superintendent Rick Smith didn't initially share the information with school board members, then attempted to keep as much information as possible from the public. By the time the information became known, the public had soured on Smith, the district's lack of testing progress and the whole Ooltewah debacle. In March 2016, he resigned his position, setting off the current superintendent search.

Ironically, one of the suggestions to remedy poor communications was to hire a communications director. But it is the new communications director who was the intermediary between the newspaper and the district on the public records. And perhaps the new communications director should have instructed Highlander on what a public record is and isn't.

No remedy will be effected, though, until the district and the board understand the meaning and importance of transparency with the public and with those who provide it information. We believe that should be at the top of the jobs list of any new superintendent.

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