Payson’s school board members spent Saturday grappling with the future — and worrying about their relationship with the public.
The session sometimes sounded like a combat debriefing, as board members talked thoughtfully about the lessons learned in the course of a traumatic year.
Make no mistake: The board had a rough year. Faced with declining enrollment, shrinking state support and a million-dollar deficit, the board’s choices ranged from bad to worse.
Each of them sought to serve this community in hopes of making a difference — because they care about kids and wanted to make schools better. This year, all they could do was minimize the damage.
The conversation on Saturday revealed how seriously the board members take their heavy responsibilities and how earnestly they have struggled with those awful choices.
But the discussion also offered some insight into some self-created challenges.
Several board members expressed concern that people think the board rubber stamps decisions by automatically approving Superintendent Casey O’Brien’s proposals. And that is true enough. When voters hear no questions being asked there is an assumption the board is just going along with whatever proposal has been placed in front of them.
The discussion revealed that most of the school board members had long conversations with administrators before meetings to understand the options. But the public does not know what took place in those discussions nor what questions were asked or what options were considered.
Moreover, board members clearly felt the need to present a common front in public. Some board members said they don’t feel free to even ask questions in public session because other board members don’t want them to rock the life raft.
But that reluctance to ask questions publicly and that desire to march in lock step has largely created the public impression they now lament.
Board members need to ask their questions in public for their own benefit, as well as for other board members who might not have asked the same question, and for the benefit of the general public.
Voters should not be guessing about the thoughts and feelings of elected school board members when it comes to policy decisions. Asking questions of administrators is part of the board’s job. The more questions they ask the better informed they will be and so will the public.
The actions and questions of elected officials are meant to be heard in public sessions, not behind closed doors or in private meetings. Voters should not be kept in the dark about the concerns of elected officials.
Fortunately, the board members seemed resolved to learn from that sometimes painful experience.
For instance, board member Rory Huff resolved to do a better job of explaining his votes and revealing his reasoning in the public meetings.
We also hope that the board members who ask sometimes-inconvenient questions in public session will not back off. In our mind there are no dumb questions, just good questions that don’t get asked.
In truth, the public needs to understand the board’s decisions.
Moreover, the board should insist on the presentation of real alternatives, instead of just the plan favored by the administration. This will allow the board to publicly weigh the pros and cons of different approaches.
At present, the public usually sees a single proposal from the administration that the board adopts after cursory description on a 5-0 vote.
The school board, not the administration, must establish the priorities in the district.
Moreover, the board must play its full and vital role as the irreplaceable link between the voters who fund the schools and the administration that runs them. Fortunately, Saturday’s session suggests the board is resolved to grow into those vital roles.