GRAY MATTER: Let's bring the sunshine back to Spring Grove government
Tuesday, March 15, 2011 4:38 AM
This week is what is known as "Sunshine Week," which is a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information spearheaded by the American Society of News Editors.
Participants include news media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and others interested in the public's right to know.
I have some concerns with recent actions of our local governmental bodies. I've been dismayed with tactics seen in the current city council and school board.
First to the school board, I was shocked, as were many of you, to read Clay Schuldt's report on the Feb. 23 school board meeting and learn that Rachel Udstuen will be offered the permanent superintendent position.
I felt that the school board looked like it had straightened itself around after its absolute LACK of TRANSPARENCY on the unexpected dismissal of longtime superintendent Jim Busta (with no real explanation to the public of the reasons why).
They advertised and interviewed for Mark Johnson's board replacement and brought down an expert to help them formulate a process to search for a new superintendent. Then bam, they return to the secrecy and ill-advised process of making decisions outside of the public eye.
A decision of that magnitude deserved to be out in the open, just as the decision to get rid of their former superintendent.
Without a proper public dialogue on the reasons and process as to how the board reached the decision the rumor mill is the only source of information and that serves no one.
What happened between Feb. 3, when the expert from the state came down to help to assist in putting together a transparent PUBLIC process, and then on a cold snowy night (Feb. 10) when the Herald made a decision to not attend an organizational work session, where the board apparently formulates its decision to forgo the whole process laid out before it and hire their interim administrator with no input from the public, the staff or anyone at all, as best as the Herald can tell?
I'm not saying she isn't qualified or perhaps the best candidate in the end, but how are we suppose to know? We don't even know what measuring stick they used to say she was the "most qualified" candidate out there?
On a side note, I think it is even more troubling that a board that is willing to make that monumental of a decision at a work session was then so ashamed or secretive (you decide) as to not even put the announcement on the Feb. 23 meeting agenda, the document merely said "Superintendent Search" ... acting as though such a search was still underway!
What now? Not much can be done unless a LOT of people show up at the next school board meeting, which is Monday, March 21, and ask some hard questions BEFORE the board signs a contract with Mrs. Udstuen.
We don't even know what they are "negotiating"... is it full-time, part-time, shared... all very important questions in light of the current and future budget crisis the state is in.
The other option is to pursue the decision (and process leading to it) in court, but who among us can afford that? Even the newspaper's pockets aren't deep enough to get into a two-year court fight that could easily run between $25,000 to $50,000 based on past cases. (Think Caledonia Argus versus Caledonia School District.)
Of course, many people say if you don't like the decision don't reelect them. Unfortunately, the public has a very short memory and the voters continue to allow these monumental decisions to go unchallenged and with no public debate at all. Plus it's four years down the road!
Anyone who reads this column has a little ownership in this problem too! How many of you came up to newspaper staff after Mr. Busta's dismissal and said, "That is wrong!" "What are they doing?" "Why aren't they being held accountable?"
Where was your letter to the editor? How many school board meetings did you attend registering your displeasure? How many school board members did you call or contact?
The public has to be part of the process to make our government accountable to us. Many supporters of the Tea Party say that is what their movement is about.
I'm not sure that I agree with that analysis of the national movement, but I think perhaps Spring Grove needs to have its own "Tea Party" movement to remind our elected officials who their constituents are and that we demand they return to a path of transparency and openness.
But, I also remind our voters to stop being so apathetic! The most effort you can put into an issue that bothers you is to complain to a couple friends or anyone that will listen at a coffee shop or gas station parking lot? Come on Grovers, we can do better than that!
We will need a level of trust in our school board members as there will need to be many hard decisions made in the next year or so and those decisions may decide if we keep our public school or go the way of other small towns that have lost their high school.
I'll get to the council next week... until then, let's get fired up people!