Tuesday, March 6, 2018

A Matter of Public Record

People are passionate about their children and their money -- serving on a school board has given me the humbling opportunity to affect both. As for the seemingly endless onslaught of insults, innuendo, and misinformation that inevitably accompanies any elected office, wiser folks than I have advised me to ignore it. There are simply not enough hours in the day to debunk all the conspiracy theories or correct all the misinformation that is publicly available.

However, when the editorial staff of our local newspaper of record distorts that record with misleading attacks on the leadership of Champaign Unit 4 Schools, as happened on March 4, 2018, I will not stay silent.

Unit 4 was accused of secrecy and non-transparency -- and perhaps most egregiously, of having the district spokesperson (instead of the superintendent) speak on behalf of the district -- based on the fact that on February 12, 2018, we approved a significant real estate purchase "without discussion."

The Board's approval of what amounts to a rent-to-own contract on 502 W. Windsor Drive was indeed part of the February 12 consent agenda. As anyone who has served on a board knows, a "consent agenda" is a parliamentary tool commonly used to save time at public meetings. On a consent agenda, individual items requiring a vote are grouped together (usually near the end of a meeting) and are voted on as one block. However, if a significant item appears on our consent agenda as a matter of voting convenience, it has usually been discussed at a previous public meeting. This purchase was no exception.

I invite any interested party to follow the links on Unit 4's webpage to the list of all past Board meeting agendas, including one on November 13, 2017. The first item of New Business on the Board's agenda that evening was a presentation by Dr. Zola: "Building For the Future Update." Because of our commitment to transparency, the website provides access to Dr. Zola's Powerpoint presentation, which included the following slide:

from "Building for the Future Update," 11/13/17

Here Dr. Zola explained the District's plans to relocate the approximately 75 Unit 4 staff members who would be displaced from Columbia as a result of Dr. Howard construction, and she listed the following destinations: "703 S. New Street, 402 N. Randolph, 502 W. Windsor Road." As summarized on the slide and discussed that evening, these operational relocation decisions were based on the "opportunity to reunite departments" while "looking thoughtfully at department need and community access."

Here is how I interpret transparency as a member of the Board:
we engage in the public's business at public meetings, with agendas posted beforehand and meeting minutes and videos posted afterward. Our discussion about using 502 W. Windsor for administrative space, as well as our vote to approve the purchase, were both transparent. (Only our discussions of specific contract details -- including our decision to rent-to-own rather than to lease -- took place during closed session, as permitted by the real estate exemption to the Illinois Open Meetings Act.)

However, we do not control who attends our meetings, nor can we control what others choose to write about our meetings. As it happens, the News-Gazette did send a reporter to cover that November 13 Board meeting. An article appeared in the newspaper on November 14, 2017, focusing only on the public comment period that occurred near the beginning of the meeting.

Members of the press are free to write about whatever topics they feel will most engage their reading public; it is not up to Unit 4 to dictate journalists' choices. Fortunately, again due to our District's commitment to transparency, the video of that entire meeting can be viewed on the Unit 4 website if someone wanted to check what they might have missed.

In short, the News-Gazette never reported on Dr. Zola's public presentation in November that explained our consent agenda vote in February. Nevertheless they chose to browbeat Unit 4 for our lack of transparency.

I am no "shill," and I submit that the role of "watchdog" should properly be played by journalists. In this instance, however, the Editorial Board of the News-Gazette chose to sling accusations rather than report publicly available facts. Their readers deserve better.

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