In response to the Notebook's April 2 editorial, "Step out from behind the curtain."
While any school-system governing body — be it the School Reform Commission or a board of education — will inevitably encounter the wrath of parents, employees, elected officials, and other citizens around controversial issues like school closings, staff cuts, and spending priorities, hiding in executive sessions and failing to answer questions raised in public testimony have never proven to reduce conflict and, in fact, have been a direct route to increasing antagonism.
Consensus is not a prerequisite of legitimacy, and the SRC or board of education is not a Quaker meeting, but what gives it legitimacy is a basic respect for public access and openness.
Previous school boards conducted some of their meetings in school auditoriums around the city. This gave the members awareness of the particular concerns of given neighborhoods and gave parents from those neighborhoods, many of whom have to rely on public transportation, a more convenient opportunity to express their concerns.
And whether in downtown or neighborhood meetings, those former school boards and superintendents made a point of answering the public’s questions. When Constance Clayton was superintendent and Herman Mattleman was school board president, if a staff member could not answer a question raised in public testimony, she or he took the name and phone number of the questioner and was publicly instructed to respond within 24 hours. That was responsiveness — and a startling contrast to the many questions that have remained unanswered in recent memory.
The incoming Board of Education would be well-advised to follow these democratic precedents and to add another practice: to engage in candid discussion of policy issues in a public meeting at least a week before voting on them so that citizens can learn about how they are thinking and what the competing pros and cons are, and have the opportunity to weigh in before official decisions are made.
The SRC would have incurred far less rancor if it had followed these three basic democratic practices. After all, as the masthead of the Washington Post reminds us, “Democracy dies in darkness."