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Say the secret word and win $100,000

Whether Superintendent Lee Leiker deserves a $100,000-a-year salary isn’t the only question.

If school board members think he’s worth three times what a starting teacher makes and merits a nearly 10 percent raise, making him the highest paid public employee in the history of Marion County, we’ll apparently have to trust their due diligence.

More troubling, perhaps, is why Leiker — and possibly the board — tried to keep the public in the dark as his salary was considered.

Leiker’s hefty raise and smaller, across-the-board raises for other administrators were voted on despite never appearing on any board agenda.

Amazingly, that’s not illegal. Unlike more progressive states, Kansas does not require public bodies to let the public know what they intend to vote on. Officials don’t even have to tell the truth when asked.

An adept spin-meister with a deserved reputation for tightly controlling access to district news, Leiker knows this.

His last-minute notice for the meeting at which his raise was approved portrayed the meeting as extraordinarily routine — a year-end, tidy-up-the-books session, scheduled for the unusual time of noon Wednesday.

The only potentially interesting item was a cryptic reference: “executive session — personnel.” Specifically asked what would be discussed, Leiker told Record reporter David Colburn the topic would be selection of a co-sponsor for the junior class.

Sure enough, a junior class co-sponsor also was selected — although, as it turns out, discussion of such an appointment would not have been appropriate in a secret “executive” session, according to experts we have since consulted.

Based on Leiker’s assurances that the meeting would be purely routine, we decided not to juggle assignments to allow a reporter to attend. Leiker’s misdirection may not have broken any laws, but it surely broke a lot of faith.

Even after the meeting, secrecy prevailed. Board President Chris Sprowls initially offered to share public data from other districts that the board had relied upon in setting Leiker’s salary. After what we presume were discussions involving Leiker, Sprowls retracted the offer. We now are filing a request for the data under the Kansas Open Records Act.

Secrecy begets suspicion

Ironically, by trying to keep journalists and the public from knowing that his fat new contract was going to be discussed and what data might have supported it, Leiker ended up drawing even more attention to it.

Leiker’s shrouding the matter in secrecy leaves us asking questions: Basing salaries on what unidentified other districts pay might be appropriate in setting an initial salary. However, after an employee has been on the job, shouldn’t salary be based on performance? Have USD 408 test scores improved? Have USD 408 tax dollars been saved? Or are we simply inflating salaries by comparison, much as professional sports teams do? And if comparisons are being made, are they appropriate? Why, for example, is Hillsboro’s superintendent, who has a doctorate instead of a master’s and whose district has much better test scores, earning less than Leiker will?

We can’t solely blame Leiker. We should have done better, too.

Board members apparently knew the vote was coming. They said as much at the end of a previous meeting. But no one other than Leiker and district staff were there to hear. The comments came once the board had reconvened after first shooing out the press and public for a previous closed-door session.

Again, nothing illegal happened. Under Kansas’ lax laws, a board can tell the public it plans to transact no additional business after an end-of-the-day secret session, then turn around and do whatever it wants after the public and the press have been tacitly encouraged to go home.

As the only news organization routinely covering school board meetings for all five county districts (only Hillsboro’s are covered by more than one reporter), we now know we have to attend every meeting and stick around until after every late-night secret session concludes.

We also know we have to even more closely monitor the legality of the alarmingly large number of secret sessions called — four during the slightly more than hour-long meeting at which Leiker’s raise was considered.

Questionable legality

Leiker attended all of the first of those, the first half of the second, and the last portion of the fourth. Oddly, this may have been a violation of the law. Experts tell us the list of non-members invited to a secret session must be established in open session, before a secret session begins, and not altered midway into a secret session. They also tell us the method by which the secret sessions were called was fatally flawed in that it listed only the reason for closing the session, not the specifics of the matters to be discussed, as is required by the attorney general. It also appears that an entire pay schedule was discussed; state law allows talking about an individual’s pay behind closed doors but specifically prohibits discussion of pay schedules in executive session.

So now, instead of a vigorous public debate over how to compensate an official, we’re left discussing whether a reporter was lied to and whether a handful of technicalities were violated.

If you want a reason why the public has grown weary of the political system and its endless gaming of every loophole, look no further.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified July 3, 2012

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