Between the time Jim Hinson took office as Shawnee Mission Superintendent in July 2013 and the abrupt announcement of his retirement last month, nearly 2,200 items came before the board of education for consideration.
And in all but four of those instances, the item got the board’s unanimous approval.
An analysis by the Shawnee Mission Post found that between August 2013 and July 2016 — three full years — there was not a single non-unanimous vote. Every single item the board voted on during Hinson’s tenure has been approved.
To be sure, hundreds of the unanimous votes came on routine business — the adoption of a meeting agenda, or the approval of the previous meeting’s minutes, for example. But dozens and dozens of them came on substantive issues like the hiring of high-level personnel, real estate transactions and curriculum decisions that the board approved with little or no public discussion.
Frequently, even clearly controversial issues, or issues that would have raised a discussion about ethics among board members on other governing bodies, were passed unanimously with virtually no discussion or explanation.
Among those votes were:
- The move to approve a 10 percent raise for Hinson and substantial raises for other top administrators at the same time the district was publicly talking about the financial strains it was facing in the summer of 2015. The resolution was part of a consent agenda, and never discussed in public before the vote.
- In February 2016, the board approved a motion to sell the McEachen Administrative Center property to Adventist Health solutions for less than its appraised value without discussion as part of a consent agenda. The sale and Adventist’s plan to put a 120-bed healthcare facility on the site prompted protest from some neighboring property owners.
- In March 2014, the board approved the hiring of a second deputy superintendent at a time when it already had one deputy superintendent on staff. That hiring was approved as part of a human resources consent agenda with no public discussion pertaining to the need for a second deputy.
- In January 2017, months after her daughter had been hired for an in-district job by insurance broker CBIZ but before that connection had been reported publicly, SM South representative Deb Zila voted in favor of a motion to renew a contract with CBIZ for property insurance services. At no point in the meeting did Zila publicly disclose that her daughter was an employee of the company working on district business, nor did she recuse herself. In fact, Zila was the one to make the motion to approve the consent agenda on which the item was listed and bring it to a vote.
The persistent and consistent conformity paired with minimal public discussion is anomalous among other elected governing bodies in northeast Johnson County. It’s not dissimilar, however, from the practices of Johnson County’s other large school districts. Cursory reviews of both the Blue Valley and Olathe Boards of Education reveal that 7-0 votes are the norm outside the 435 loop as well. Current Shawnee Mission Board of Education President Sara Goodburn stressed that fact in response to the Shawnee Mission Post’s analysis of the voting record during Hinson’s tenure.
“The issues that come before cities are more broad,” Goodburn wrote. “In my opinion, you should compare our voting record to those of other school boards.”
Goodburn also detailed the behind-the-scenes processes by which board members are brought up to speed on issues that the administration is working on and how those items are forwarded to the board meeting agenda. The week before a board meeting, members of the board meet two or three at a time with the superintendent to be briefed on items that will come before the board for consideration. If board members aren’t comfortable with an item, it won’t be forwarded to the public meeting agenda for a vote.
Goodburn said she believes the unanimity is a sign of the strong collaboration among the board and the administration.
“Each board member has one vote and independently casts that vote each and every time a motion comes before him or her. If a unanimous decision is reached, that only indicates to me that our board members have had ample time to study the issues and agree with the given direction or action,” she wrote us. “The National School Boards Association, in their publication The Key Work of School Boards Guidebook, describes effective school boards ‘as a united team with the superintendent, each in their respective roles with strong collaboration and trust.’ Our board members trust one another and our superintendent.”
But that approach, which makes unanimous support for a superintendent’s recommendation all but a foregone conclusion, has started to draw scrutiny from Shawnee Mission patrons. A group of parents formed the new Education First Shawnee Mission organization largely in response to the perceived lack of transparency.
“The school board’s unanimous voting record has been a concern of ours and many other parents,” said Jennifer Howerton, an Education First founding board member. “It is too difficult to discern why decisions are made if there is no public conversation.”
Transparency was also among the issues highlighted by a group of parents who peppered the board with questions at their March meeting.
And it’s one of the issues that initially compelled Brian Koon to throw his name in the mix in the race for the at-large board seat up for election this November. (It was Koon who first made the passage of Hinson’s 2015 raise public during a meeting open forum in March 2016). Though Koon has since stepped out of the race and given his support to Heather Ousley, he says that board transparency continues to be an issue he’ll keep a close eye on.
“I reject the notion that the board never had cause to disagree with Dr. Hinson because he never asked for anything controversial,” Koon said. “I believe that in general, school boards should work with school administration, but when there are fundamental concerns about the administration, the board has a duty to be a little more skeptical – that’s their job. In Shawnee Mission, we have 7-0 votes on policies that a broad majority of the voting public can see are questionable ideas. That’s remarkable. I can’t get seven adults to agree on where to order take-out for lunch.”
At least one current member of the board seems to agree that more public discussion is warranted. Brad Stratton first raised concerns about the board’s lack of transparency last summer, when he questioned the process for nominating and voting on board officers. (That meeting, in July 2016, accounted for two of the four non-unanimous votes during Hinson’s tenure. Stratton and Cindy Neighbor cast dissenting votes in items related to the election of the board president and vice president). Today, he says he’s working to bring public discussion to the items that make their way to the public meeting agenda.
“In my two years on the board, I have found the current practice of holding agenda review meetings the week prior to the board meeting to be helpful in having my preliminary questions answered by staff,” Stratton said. “However, I feel that more of this agenda review process should take place during the regular board meetings. As we transition into the new school year, I will be encouraging board leadership to bring more of the agenda review process and board member Q&A to the regular board meetings so that the public has a better chance of seeing and hearing all that goes into the board decision making process.”
That’s welcome news to district parents like Koon who have raised concerns about the board’s approach.
“Like most of us, I ask questions about policies I disagree with, but I also ask questions about policies I do agree with. That’s how we learn. Asking questions is not a sign of disrespect towards a given policy, but an effort by public servants to be sure they’ve done their absolute best,” Koon said. “Questioning policy isn’t just about breaking down bad policy, it’s also about improving good policy, and right now our board appears to do neither.”
The full letter Goodburn submitted to the Shawnee Mission Post in response to our inquiry on the issue is copied below: