There’s been quite a shake up on the Sag Harbor School Board recently — and you know what? We think that’s a good thing.
One of the major issues that has arisen is the notion of what is, or isn’t, appropriate for the board to discuss in executive session. The list is very specific and limited — personnel, lawsuits, that sort of thing.
Two board members (one now former) contend that some times what has been taken into executive session are topics that don’t belong there. While others, including the board president, dispute this charge, whenever there is a question of transparency – whether a board believes it has followed the letter of the law or not – it is incumbent that we take a closer look at how we do business to ensure we are truly doing so in the best interest and full view of the public.
But beyond exploring the notion of what should, or shouldn’t, be discussed in private session, there remains a much larger issue to consider here — and that is an elected official’s right, and dare we say, responsibility, to express themselves publicly.
But when it comes to the Sag Harbor School Board, members have agreed to allow only two spokespeople to share the board’s positions publicly outside of their meetings, and in particular when approached about an issue by the press — the board president and the district’s superintendent.
By agreeing to allow the board to be structured in this way, the individual members are doing their constituents a major disservice. Who among us imagines that two people — let alone seven — are always unified in their decisions and share the same vision? It’s unrealistic and it’s not what we want from our elected officials. Yes, consensus is important, but when we seek a larger debate on a school issue, one voice from a body of seven is not sufficient, nor productive.
Every elected board is made up of members who represent a range of factions in a diverse community. School boards, in particular, should reflect that community and since their inception, were intended to represent the diverse and opposing values within a population.
The fact is voters elect candidates to represent them based on what they feel they can bring to the board — not their willingness to present a unified front. By stifling debate and silencing voices, we’re all done a disservice and boards are hardly living up to the democratic values upon which this country was founded.
From the public’s point of view, it’s vital they understand where their elected officials stand, what they’re thinking, and, most importantly, what they believe. Can you imagine politicians like Senator Chuck Schumer or Assemblyman Fred Thiele shying away from their opinions by agreeing to let President Obama or Governor Cuomo issue their public statements?
School board elections are fast approaching and we’re going to have four — count them, four — board seats up for grabs, making this dialogue that much more critical at this juncture. One issue that should be considered in voting for a candidate is knowing that they will speak to you and inform you of their opinions. For a board member not to comment on the important issues of the day is not only an abrogation of their responsibility, for us, it’s not an option.
“Go to the meetings,” say board members. “Pick up the minutes… you’ll know where we stand.” But who says every story begins and ends with what happens in the boardroom? If this newspaper, another publication dedicated to this community — or members of the public — want to flesh out an issue beyond the confines of those four walls, why can’t a democratically elected official have that conversation and voice their opinion?
Despite the venue they represent, this isn’t high school anymore, and no one has the right to tell elected officials who they can, or cannot, talk to. Yeah, consensus building is great — but the truth is better — and this is a process that should be worked out and discussed openly in public.
And when debate trickles out of the boardroom? We say let it flow. If we are truly working in the best interest of our children – and we do believe that is ultimately the goal of members of this current board, despite these questions – what do we really have to lose?