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Breaking Our Own Rule

Should there be a price to pay for voicing an opinion and speaking out?

By Sue Curry Jones

Last week our newspaper ran an anonymous ad submitted by a group of parents who are concerned about actions of the Ava School Board.  The ad posed questions about recent budget decisions and expressed concerns about pending personnel decisions.

After the ad was published, three people called to question the value and purpose of letting the ad run without a name, a request most generally refused under our policy.

In response to the queries, here are a few reasons why the exception was allowed.

We all know that public officials create and enact public policy, and because they are elected to represent the community, the community has the right to voice opinions and question policies put in place during their term and vote.

Under shared legislative power, public officials determine how we operate.  They establish park and recreation programs and how we use them.  They define the scope of our local courts, zoning laws and construction codes which delineate where, what and how owners build structures on property.  Officials oversee weed and garbage control, set guidelines for where we park our cars and what we keep in our yards.

In many ways elected officials define the way we live.

In our school district, board members supervise a multi-million dollar budget, ensure state statutes and set policy rules and regulations that families and students must follow. As a board, they oversee the educational needs of students, and balance the financial demands of the district.  They are responsible for employing decent and professional teachers and staff, setting salaries, schedules, terms of employment, educational goals, and they serve as a court of appeals for professional and support staff inquiries.

The board is the final authority that controls every aspect of the district within the limit of the law.

They are also responsible for providing adequate contact with constituents and keeping district patrons informed.  And, under the election process, voters place their trust and faith in these men and women.

As officials, board members posses a certain level of trust and responsibility, it comes with the job title. These individuals take an oath to uphold the office and serve the people –– an oath that commits them “to obey laws and serve humbly and faithfully in office.”

Once installed in office, however, these individuals are no longer just private citizens, but representatives with a job description that requires decision-making for the benefit of the whole.

So, last week when a group of local parents asked for anonymity in placing an ad and expressed concern about the possibility of retribution on their school-age kids, credibility was given to the request because fear should not be a factor when asking about and discussing school policy decisions. Parents and residents should be free to ask questions without fear of reprisals; however, this isn’t the first group to express worry.

Over the past eleven years, others have expressed the same concern.  They too were scared to speak out.  Consequently, it appears that public trust has been damaged through years of censored communications, and many voters feel betrayed.

Voicing an opinion – diplomatic or basic in content, right or wrong – has become a stumbling block in this small community, and that just shouldn’t be.

Louis Binstock, an American Rabbi, once said, “Very often we are our own worst enemy as we foolishly build stumbling blocks on the path that leads to success and happiness.”  As residents and stakeholders in this community, we should not allow authorities to maintain barriers and hide under the privacy of closed session, or the cloak of the Sunshine Law –– these rules serve to protect the process, not hinder ­­–– and if we allow this to happen, we too are guilty.  It is our fault if we let officials concentrate more on complying with rules of conduct rather than truth, transparency and building trust.

As voters, we must take responsibility for the direction and actions of our governmental bodies and decision-making boards. Our input and communication is key to the process, and it is a concern when citizens stepping out with opinions embrace the threat of unwarranted consequences.  And, that is why the ad was allowed.

It is unsuitable for any resident in this community to feel threatened or uncomfortable or out-of-place for posing questions and probing for answers.  It shouldn’t matter if the question or comment is accurate or not, a civil and respectful courteous reply should be the only end result.

One of the many definitions of accountability for an elected official reads as follows, “it is the obligation of authorities to explain publicly, fully and fairly, before and after the fact, how they carry out responsibil­ities that affect the public in im­portant ways.  Validating fairness and completeness and doing the sen­sible and fair with explanation given in good faith.”

This definition stresses the importance of maintaining an open dialogue between those placed in office and their constituents, and the significance of working together toward a common goal.

In our interpersonal relationships, we recognize the significance of open communications with our chil­dren, spouses and co-workers. En­couraging that outreach helps create a connection and bond vital to the relationship and fills both sides with under­standing and trust –– and create strong foundations for growth.

As a group or as a single parent, the public should not be afraid to ask questions of those who represent our community and oversee the needs of our students.  Fear of retaliation shouldn’t be an issue.

However, if reprisal truly is a problem, then perhaps our present system is failing.  And perhaps, our children are paying a price because of poor communications or censored voices.

Nonetheless, it is important to be involved, to maintain awareness and question the policymaking actions of public officials. Especially during an election year.

As a community, let’s not make assumptions or believe gossip, but instead, may we all continue to question officials, be cognizant of the process and continue to search for the truth.

It’s not only our right under the law, but it’s our duty.

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News Editor Note:

I extend a sincere apology to Dr. Brian Wilson whose name was mentioned in the ad last week.  His name shouldn’t have been singled out, as Dr. Wilson is an employee of the school district, and he fulfills his duties as directed by the board. 

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