Not worth it

Published 1:57 pm Thursday, July 19, 2007

By Staff
The decision by the Beaufort County Board of Education to begin its meeting early Monday was, at the very least, a disservice to the public it serves.
By starting the meeting before its announced and advertised time of 6 p.m., the school board may have put on the appearance of doing something wrong or having something to hide. The trouble with people thinking you have done something wrong or have hidden something is they begin questioning everything you do, even if you did nothing wrong to begin with.
It’s understandable that when people see smoke, they believe there’s a fire, too.
Starting the meeting early may have resulted in people getting home earlier that night than they would have if the meeting had started at its announced time. Starting the meeting early, even if the board went into a closed session right away, was a slap in the faces of those who showed up for the meeting.
The school board should have waited until 6 p.m. before convening. Going into closed session and keeping the public out of that closed session was allowed by state law. There’s no argument the board could do that.
The problem is the board’s decision to convene early and not allow those people who were interested in attending the meeting to observe the board’s action, even if that action was to immediately go into closed session. The public has the right to observe and make sure the board follows the proper procedure for convening in a closed session. Without the public there to observe, how can people be sure the board followed those procedures?
There may have been nothing the public could do about what the board discussed in closed session, but the public — the very people whose tax dollars pay to run the schools — does have the right to make sure proper procedure is followed before the board excludes the public from a closed session.
It’s understandable when people wonder out loud about why the board met early and in closed session. It’s understandable some people would think the board was hiding something. It’s understandable people want action regarding public schools discussed, debated and acted upon in the public’s presence.
If board members were trying to get an early jump on a meeting they expected to last several hours, that’s understandable, too. It may be understandable but not acceptable.
How would some of the board members feel if the local board of elections decided to end the filing period for a school-board race 15 minutes earlier than advertised deadline and didn’t inform them? Board members could show up five minutes before the announced deadline and find out they can’t run for office because the deadline was moved to an earlier time. Those board members would be upset, possibly irate, and deservedly so.
Parents, teachers and others who showed up at a meeting they expected to begin at 6 p.m. only to find out it had started and the board was in closed session should be upset, irate and concerned.
Whether it intended to or not, the school board sent a message Monday night. That message, as perceived by some people, is the board doesn’t care what the public thinks.
Rightly or wrongly, some people have that perception.
The school board should be striving to have people trust what it does and its motives for doing what it does. The school board, by its error in judgment with Monday’s meeting, has created a dark cloud of distrust in some people’s minds. For others, the board’s action is just another example of the board not respecting the public’s role in the education of children.
The issue of whether the board could legally meet before the announced time of 6 p.m. is one that needs exploring. Even if there is no legal prohibition against the board meeting early, there is a question of common courtesy to the public.
By meeting early, the school board may have prevented the meeting from going later than it did. But saving those minutes resulted in the board’s reputation being damaged.
The board will find out meeting early wasn’t worth the cost that meeting is exacting.