Cheating the public interest

Cheating the public interest

February 18th, 2012 in Opinion Times

It's not clear which official barred the press from attending a meeting here Thursday between Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman and our county school Superintendent Rick Smith, along with most members of the board. Each leader told our reporters it was the other who excluded them. How lame. Both had a duty to invite the press and hold an open, public meeting. Both the nature of their meeting and the topic of discussion demanded adherence to the state's open meetings act.

The meeting occurred after Huffman spoke to the Chattanooga Rotary Club about the state's new School Innovation Zone program, for which a competitive grant of $30 million to $40 million will be awarded. School systems have to bid for the grant, and Huffman said he hopes the Hamilton County school system will apply. Officials here seem likely to do so.

School patrons, teachers and parents surely would have been interested in the discussion in the follow-up meeting, in another room at the Chattanooga Convention Center, between Huffman and our school officials. The winner of the program will get to use state taxpayer funds to design and implement creative programs to improve student achievement outside the bounds of regular school rules. They might, for example, use longer school days and use differentiated curriculum.

It seems clear that public discussion about the program would have stimulated public interest. In any case, the media -- the vehicle for informing the larger public -- had every right to attend and report on the meeting. It was formally announced; public notice had been issued to the media six days earlier; and there was no reason to block the media.

It's inconceivable that Huffman would have divulged information about the program that he would not tell any other competing school system. So there would have been nothing that required confidentiality. Yet "confidentiality" was the excuse Huffman's spokeswoman, Kelli Gauthier, gave reporters before closing the door on them.

Smith, moreover, also said "no" when Huffman asked him going in whether the press would be allowed to cover his chat with the school board.

A school official told our reporters later that the meeting was closed because it had been scheduled as an "executive session" of the board, a classification the board commonly uses to bar the media from a the pre-meeting gathering the board holds before its regular school board meeting.

This is baloney, and it should end. As Kent Flanagan, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said, there is no reason under Tennessee's open meetings law for a blanket closure of executive sessions. The board actually is required to cite a specific reason under state code for each and every time it claims the right to hold a closed meeting. The board should start observing that law. The public interest demands it. Board members are to serve the taxpayers, not the other way around.