Public business should be debated in public

Public business should be debated in public
Posted on 04/06/2017

The Dispatch

Let’s hope the Lexington City Board of Education’s vote Tuesday to revert to a traditional calendar for the upcoming school year restores some calm after weeks of turmoil. That strife started when a majority of the Lexington City Council agreed to seek legislation doing away with the current system of appointing school board members in favor of an elected board.

There’s nothing wrong with that decision in itself. As we’ve said previously, we support the concept of an elected school board, which will create more direct accountability to the residents who choose its members. And since Lexington City Schools has one of only three boards in the state currently not elected, residents here are in the extreme minority of those who don’t enjoy that accountability. And, as Mayor Newell Clark has pointed out, the decision did lie with the City Council, since it has had the authority for eight decades to appoint school board members and has the right to seek the change.

However, agreeing with the concept doesn’t mean we think this decision was made in the right way – and we don’t. Clark told reporter Julia Hudgins that he and council members had “numerous individual meetings” in which he gauged their interest in changing the structure of the Board of Education. Because the decision involved the council giving up its authority to appoint school board members and turning that responsibility over the public, Clark said he didn’t think community input was necessary.

We disagree. When considering any issue that will impact their community – especially, as in this case, one as fundamental as a change in governing structure – we believe elected officials have an obligation to undertake that debate in a public forum even if they think the law doesn’t require it. At least one member of the City Council has expressed a similar opinion. Here’s how Councilman Frank Callicutt (who supports an elected school board but voted against the council’s resolution to seek the change in law) recalled the vote: “I asked another member of the board, I said, ‘Did we do something illegal?’ and they said, ‘No, I don’t think we did something illegal, but I think it’s pretty safe to say we’ve done something unethical.’ ”

To be fair, Amanda Martin, an attorney for the North Carolina Press Association with expertise in open meetings law, said the method used to discuss the proposed change in how school board members are chosen “doesn’t seem like a violation of the meetings law.” However, she said, “That doesn’t mean that it was good policy. … I would advocate that big changes should be done with community input.”

This, inarguably, is a big change. While the council’s process for seeking it may not have breached the letter of the open meetings law, it sure appears to have violated the spirit of the law, which exists to ensure the public’s business is done in public. Clark said the General Assembly’s deadline for filing local bills necessitated getting this done now. But after 82 years, what was the rush? If, as Callicutt suggested, dissension over the so-called “balanced calendar” adopted by the current school board after three years of study and scheduled to take effect this fall contributed to the council’s decision, that’s wrong.

That calendar could very well be the central campaign issue in the first school board election. If it is, at least it will be debated in public.