REMOVE MUZZLES FROM SCHOOL BOARD

January 01, 2002 11:00 pm

A statement made by Shari Bennett, the longtime La Grande School Board member who resigned last month, might have given the public a false impression.

Bennett, in issuing her public statement and apology related to a student grade change and accessing the Youth for Understanding program file at the high school, suggested that board members can be seen but should not be heard.

Bennett, in her statement published in The Observer Nov. 17, said school board members, by policy, do not have the authority to speak publicly on board issues and decisions.

We wonder what kind of policy is that? Its understandable why Bennett would not want to fully discuss her participation in the grade change issue because of concerns for the student involved. But clearly, Bennett could have been forthright on the reasons why she and board member Kathleen Cathey decided to review the YFU program file in the high school office. Bennett also could have explained to citizens why she concluded that no confidential records were read and that no state or federal laws were violated.

Bennetts comments about the grade change and the YFU file might seem unnecessary now. She is off the board. Cathey, who remains on the board, has the right and obligation to fully explain her actions to the public.

The issue Bennett raised about board members not being able to speak publicly on board issues and decisions is disturbing. The Oregon School Boards Association Code of Ethics for School Board Members and the La Grande Public Schools Board Members Ethics (1989) do not contain language that would prevent individual board members from speaking out on various, non-confidential issues. A newspaper reporter, for example, should be able to call a board member the morning after a meeting and ask them to comment on why they voted the way they did on an issue.

Rather than prohibit board members from speaking out, the OSBA code instructs a board member to respect the right of the public to be informed about district decisions and school operations. This rule seems to imply that a board member has the right and responsibility to speak to the public on most topics.

While its good for school board members to work as a team and try to cooperate with one another, each member should realize that he or she was elected by citizens in the community and is directly accountable to them. It is not only right but it is critical that board members find ways to communicate directly and regularly with the people who elected them. The public needs to know how individual members stand.

Freedom of speech is a constitutional cornerstone in our American system. Any rule or interpretation of a rule that attempts to silence a school board member, city councilor, legislator or some other elected official is wrong.