When public officials withhold information from the public and the news media, they only whet reporters' appetites to find out what is being withheld and spur the public to assume that something smelly is being hidden.
Reporters usually find out anyway, and the assumption by many members of the public that something smells is often verified. And whatever information that initially was not released usually attracts far more public attention when it is finally disclosed than it would have if released routinely.
That's a lesson that many public officials seem never to learn.
But perhaps Margaret Allen, who is an excellent veteran educator but new to the job of superintendent of Montgomery Public Schools, is a quick study who will learn from her recent mistake.
Recently Allen presented the Montgomery County Board of Education with a list of "issues of concern" raised by academic audits of MPS -- audits conducted by the State Department of Education after the department intervened in the operation of the school system in the wake of a grade-changing scandal. But Allen did not give the board -- nor the public -- copies of the audits with details.
Predictably, some members of the board wanted to see the full audits -- as well they should have. That's part of being a responsible board member.
Also predictably, reporters shifted into high gear to gain access to the audits. That's their job -- to let the public know how public agencies work.
To her credit, Allen later in the week joined with State Superintendent of Education Tommy Bice to release the academic audits and go over them in detail.
As could be expected, the state intervention team found some serious issues. That should surprise no one, considering what already had been revealed by the earlier state probe.
The most serious issue, in my opinion, is a longstanding, top-down management style that had most academic decisions being decided at the central office level instead of being addressed by strategies developed by on-the-scene principals and teachers.
The audits are available to the public, and I urge parents and taxpayers to look them over carefully.
[DOCUMENTS: MPS audits released]
But I also urge anyone who reads them to consider two things: First, they contain allegations from parents and students that may or may not be true. It is important to know that parents believe certain things to be true -- perception is important, after all -- but that some of the specifics may not be based completely on reality. Second, the public should remember that all of this precedes Allen's tenure as superintendent. She should not be judged on problems she has inherited, but on how well over the coming months she succeeds in cleaning them up.
I will admit to being impressed by Allen's commitment to students and to strong academics, as well as by her demeanor. She exudes a sense of quiet competence that bodes well for the future of MPS.
But she also has a tough job before her. The top-down, "decide everything at the central office" management style has been around for many years (although I have to believe that it grew exponentially under former superintendent Carlinda Purcell, who micromanaged to the point that she probably did not let principals decide what kind of air freshener to use in their offices).
It's always a challenge to change the culture of any large organization, especially if that culture has been built up over a long period. MPS is a huge organization, with more than 31,000 students and almost 4,000 employees spread through 51 schools. To put that in naval terms, MPS is a big ship and it will take time and lots of horsepower to turn it.
To change MPS, Allen will need public support. And she won't get it by leaving the impression that she is reluctant to share specific information with the public -- even information that is potentially embarrassing to the school system.
Parents and other taxpayers should hope that her initial misstep in releasing these audits was just a blip, and that she has learned from it.
Allow me to provide a bit of public relations advice to Superintendent Allen: It's to your advantage to get all the bad information about the system and its shortcomings on the record now. Level fully with the public. Create a new benchmark, and then let the public judge you by how well you improve conditions in the school system in the future.
That's why the first thing that a smart executive who is taking over an organization does is to ask for a financial audit. That way, the problems of the past can be placed on past leadership.
But if new management glosses over or hides the problems of the past, only to have them come to light months down the road, then those problems have become their problems. It's too late then for the current managers to blame their predecessors. (Just ask President Obama, who only sounded whiny when a year or two after taking office he was still trying to blame his predecessor for the nation's economic woes.)
We applaud Allen for moving quickly to correct her misjudgment on releasing the audits, and Bice for joining with her to help place the audits in context. And we urge her to realize that openness and transparency can work in her favor -- but even if they don't, they are still her duty.
Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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