As the director of communications for the New Haven Public School System, Chris Hoffman now stands against many of the things he stood for when he was an investigative journalist for the New Haven Register. Like transparency. Instead of working for it, he's now working against it, as recent and significant events suggest.
|I Never Said That! Oh, Wait. Yes, I Did!|
|Chris Hoffman, top spokesman for the New Haven Public School System, has a history of evasive behavior with the media. Last week, he barred the New Haven Independent from attending what was in essence an open meeting about the future of Roberto Clemente Leadership Academy. The Board of Education had planned on authorizing the privatization of the school on Monday. Only problem: the meeting was illegal. By law, the board must give notice 24 hours in advance of any open meeting; as it was, it had given a mere eight hours' notice. A new meeting is rescheduled for May 23. Last month, Hoffman told the Advocate he never issued a ban on faculty members' speaking to media. That was a false statement. On March 28, he sent an email requesting that "any reporters, researchers or students seeking interviews or information about the city's schools call me." In another email, he requested the identities of teachers who had spoken out of school. "I ask that anyone who gave ... an interview please email me." Here is our exchange.|
This is Win Vitkowsky from the New Haven Advocate.
I am writing to request any emails sent out by your office to teachers between Feb. 1 to April 20 regarding teachers communicating with the media. This is a request under the Freedom of Information Act.
My office has sent no emails to teachers regarding them communicating with the media since I started here in mid-February.
Could you send me any emails sent out from your office to teachers, administrators and employees between the dates March 27 and March 31?
[As a result of this request, Hoffman managed to find and send to the Advocate the following email, dated March 28]
A journalism class at Quinnipiac University has decided to do a ... project about the New Haven public schools. ... If anyone contacts you about this project, please have them call me. I would like to take this opportunity to ask that you have any reporters, researchers or students seeking interviews or information about the city's schools call me.
Last Thursday, Hoffman locked out New Haven Independent reporter Melissa Bailey from a meeting between parents, school officials and a private company at Roberto Clemente Leadership Academy. The meeting was about turning control of the school over to a for-profit entity in order to improve performance. Hoffman told Bailey it was private.
Hoffman would not disclose details of the meeting, except to say it was between parents, top school officials and representatives from Renaissance School Management LLC, the commercial enterprise. In a video, posted by the Independent, Hoffman in effect said that transparency was great and stuff, but really. Who has time for that?
It gets worse.
On Monday afternoon, Hoffman issued a notice of a special meeting of the Board of Education. During that meeting, it was expected that the deal between the board and Renaissance would be finalized. The only problem was that the meeting was illegal; it violated the law by providing the public only eight hours of notice when it should have given at least 24. It took a reporter, the Independent's Bailey, to point this out, thus prompting the board to reschedule the vote for May 23. Meanwhile, the Register and TV stations reported the meeting as if the controversial move to privatize a public school was already a done deal.
By blocking the media from Thursday's meeting and then by shorting the time required to notify the public on Monday, Hoffman, under the direction of his bosses, was shucking and jiving to preempt any kind of opposition.
“Our policy is to be transparent when things become official,” Hoffman told Bailey last week.
That is, when it's too late to do anything about it.
In a telephone interview on Monday, after he had issued the notice of the illegal meeting, Hoffman reiterated that Thursday's meeting was not open to the public, because the school system was merely gauging reactions from parents.
“We always try to be transparent, that's our goal,” he says. “We always seek to follow the Freedom of Information laws, and we did so in this case. It was not a meeting of the Board of Education or a committee of the Board of Education, so it would not fall under that law.”
Technically, Hoffman is right.
“It sounds like it was not a meeting of a public agency,” says Tom Hennick, public education director for the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission.
Even so, it would be hard to say he was being “as transparent as possible.” To Jerry Dunklee, a journalism professor at SCSU, what happened Friday was an open meeting.
“No. 1, it was held in a public building,” Dunklee says. "No. 2, it's a public agency that is conducting this discussion. When a public organization creates a contract with a private organization, the details are public, because they're talking about tax dollars being spent.”
“I looked at the video, which I found kind of amusing,” Dunklee adds. “My sense is that you can't have transparency without transparency. When schools are making major decisions that affect the lives of students and parents, as well as teachers, the process should be open and public. And I would add that when you increase secrecy, you decrease understanding.”
Another incident: Last month, a teacher at Wilbur Cross mysteriously stepped down as academic advisor for the Political Action Club after two of its members held an off-campus demonstration criticizing the school budget. The teacher could not be reached for comment and the students said it was because he was scared for his job.
Supporting those claims, a source told the Advocate that all teachers, administrators and employees had been instructed not to speak with media. The Advocate sent a Freedom of Information Act request to read those e-mails.
Hoffman said he never sent out e-mails regulating free speech of public school employees. A week later, when asked for the specific e-mails from the dates he sent them, he apologized, said he forgot about it and complied with the Freedom of Information Act request.
“I would like to take this opportunity to ask that you have any reporters, researchers or students seeking interviews or information about the city's schools call me,” Hoffman wrote to all faculty.
See the sidebar for the full exchange between the Advocate and Hoffman.