Last week, after fervent public outcry, Cliff Colia received assurance from the Roaring Fork School District Re-1 that he would continue as principal of Carbondale Middle School for the 2003-04 year. Colia, the beloved leader of the school, was the focus of a campaign to retain him at the school, after word got out he might be transferred to another school. Colia is extremely popular with many parents, teachers, students and community members, although district officials were concerned with CMS student achievement test scores. But questions still remain. What were the reasons behind Colia’s possible transfer to another school? Why, with so much community support, was Colia’s job being questioned? And why has everyone involved in the Colia case, including Colia himself, been so secretive?Up to ColiaSurprisingly enough, many of the answers lie with Colia. Legally, he is the only person at the school district who can speak openly about the entire chain of events, from the rumors about his dismissal or transfer to his reinstatement. Colia was out of town on Monday and could not be reached for comment. At Wednesday’s board meeting, he greeted a packed house of supporters, who gave him several standing ovations and cheered enthusiastically when he got up to speak.Colia greeted the crowd warmly and thanked them for their support, but did not address any details concerning his evaluation.He said “I am in complete agreement that what we need to be doing is providing the best education we can for our students.”Now, people are still wondering what went on behind the closed doors. “I still have a lot of questions for the board and for Fred Wall,” said Beth Davis, an 11-year teacher’s aide at Carbondale Middle School, after she heard about Colia’s reinstatement.Davis will never get those questions answered – at least not by the board or Wall. Those people are bound by law never to publicly discuss Colia’s personnel issues. Davis can go only to Colia for clarification on why he was being considered for a transfer. In fact, the only opportunity school board members and administrators would have had to publicly discuss the evaluation with Colia would have been if Colia himself requested a public meeting.”If, during the closed-door meeting Tuesday night, Cliff had requested an open hearing, the public would have been able to hear both sides,” said Re-1 superintendent Fred Wall said Monday. “But now that the issue is not before the board, we can’t comment.”What’s public? What’s not?Lauren Kingsbery is legal counsel for the Colorado State Association of School Boards in Denver. She confirmed the power to share information to the public regarding a personnel matter rests not with the school board or superintendent Wall, but with the district employee in question – in this case, Cliff Colia.”He can always make information about himself public,” said Kingsbery. “The school board can’t, and neither can the administration. They’re bound by confidentiality laws.”Kingsbery said the Sunshine Act, in particular the Open Meeting Law, was put into place for the employee. “The laws protect the professional’s reputation and privacy,” she said. “I don’t blame (Colia) for not talking openly about his evaluation. Who wants to see their performance evaluation plastered all over town? “But he is the only one who has the ability to let the public know what the issues are. By not doing that, maybe his evaluation isn’t being represented fairly,” she said.That’s why managing public education and private personnel issues can be so tricky. Kingsbery said she has seen staff evaluation situations such as Colia’s lead to similar controversy in other districts. “This does happen,” said Kingsbery. “People are attached to their principal or teacher, and they don’t see or understand the issues the administration is required to evaluate.”Confidentiality laws also protect the school district from litigation. Kingsbery said the district can be sued if board members and administrators talk openly about personnel matters.”In that way, the laws protect the district too,” she said. “By making it illegal to discuss personnel matters publicly, the district can avoid costly lawsuits that take money away from public education.”Public disclosureSome community members admonished the Re-1 school board and administrators for organizing last Tuesday’s executive session, which led to the announcement Colia was staying on at the school, the night before the board’s regularly scheduled meeting. “The announcement seemed like a cop-out to me,” said Beth Davis. Re-1 administrators did call the executive session on Tuesday night, but only Colia had the power to open that meeting to the public, according to Kingsbery. He chose to keep the meeting private, which meant the public couldn’t participate or hear the issues.”Because we didn’t have a public forum, people’s imaginations ran wild,” said school board President Robin Garvik of Carbondale. “A lack of information can often do that. “Cliff was the only one who could have waived his confidentiality,” Garvik said. “We can’t request it. In a public forum, we could have had a two-way conversation and people could have been a part of that.”Community members also questioned why the school’s achievement scores would be considered a personnel issue for Colia. Garvik said, in the end, Colia, as principal of the school, is responsible for the achievements of his students. Contact Carrie Click: 945-8515, ext. firstname.lastname@example.orgPublic recordSInformation on the Roaring Fork School District Re-1, including its personnel policies, is available on its Web site.-Go to http://www.rfsd.k12.co.usInformation on accountability reports for Carbondale Middle School and all public schools in Colorado. -Go to http://www.cde.state.co.us and click on “Accountability Reports.”
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