Monday, October 4, 2010

Our View -- Questions linger after Hanson's resignation

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Feb. 26, 2010.

The Iowa City School Board unanimously accepted City High Principal Mark Hanson's resignation earlier this week, but community members still want to know exactly why Hanson is leaving ("Board accepts resignation," Feb. 24).

Dozens of City High parents and students attended Tuesday's school board meeting to ask questions and to urge the board to reject Hanson's resignation. But after the board went into closed session -- at Hanson's request -- those parents and students were left disappointed and angry.

Their confusion is understandable. If Hanson had submitted his letter of resignation a few years ago, very few people would have questioned the reason. Back during the 2007-08 school year, for example, City High was experiencing a spike in the number of incidents of student-to-student violence. Parents and other community members were demanding a restoration of order and repeatedly pointing out that a school administrator's No. 1 priority is maintaining a safe learning environment.

If Hanson's resignation had come during the worst of those problems, then the reason would have seemed obvious. But the number of violent incidents has dropped over the past years as Hanson and district administrators clamped down on student movement in the halls during class periods, implemented no-tolerance policies, expanded the off-site behavior problems classroom and opened a Welcome Center at City High to help students new to the district learn what kinds of behavior are completely unacceptable.

That's why it's unclear as to why, in June of 2009, the district gave Hanson only a one-year contract. That's why it's unclear as to why, in September of 2009, Hanson informed City High staff he would be leaving his position after the 2009-10 school year. And that's why it's unclear why Hanson agreed to submit a letter of resignation rather than force his termination and then appeal it to the school board.

Hanson's supporters on Tuesday said they're angry because they think Hanson has done a good job during his tenure as principal. They also could rightly assume that, because Hanson is an important public employee, they have a right -- as citizens and taxpayers -- to participate in the decision and to know what exactly is going on.

Unfortunately, they don't have such a right under Iowa law -- or at least not to the extent that they want. As in most states, job performance records are specifically exempted from disclosure under the Iowa open records law. And one of the reasons the Iowa open meetings law allows public boards to go into closed session is "to evaluate the professional competency of an individual whose appointment, hiring, performance or discharge is being considered when necessary to prevent needless and irreparable injury to that individual's reputation and that individual requests a closed session."

School district officials have repeatedly declined to answer key questions about Hanson's departure, saying it is a personnel issue. And Hanson himself made a written request that the board discuss his resignation in closed session.

That's why there is no official, public explanation for why Hanson is leaving City High. Last fall, Hanson's mother said Hanson was being forced to leave because of a column he wrote that appeared in the Press-Citizen in May. In that column, Hanson wrote how boundary changes were needed to balance high school enrollment and distribution of students qualifying for free- and reduced-lunch programs.

But, as Associate Superintendent Jim Behle said at the time, district policy forbids staff members from being punished for "expressing an ethical dissent." If Hanson were being punished for submitting the column, it would be a violation of that district policy -- suggesting that Hanson could make a case for appeal. But because the board decided to begin the current redistricting process within a few months after the column was printed, it seems unlikely that it was a major factor in the decision for a one-year contract.

Given the restrictions in state law, we're not surprised that officials are not answering key questions. To do so would be irresponsible and could expose the district to potential litigation. Hanson, however, is free to comment or refuse to comment as he so chooses.

We've likewise asked the district to release the public documents related to the resignation -- namely, any settlements between the district and Hanson. We'll print that information when it becomes available.

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