Whatever happened to the idea of a free and frank discussion of public issues?
The children are supposed to be in the schools. But a new conduct policy adopted in Urbana suggests it's the adults on the school board who need the supervision.
The new policy, adopted June 19 and apparently to be enforced by board President John Dimit and Superintendent Preston Williams, tells board members what, if anything, they are allowed to say to their constituents and members of the news media. The rules are heavily weighted in favor adhering to the district's official policies and very much discourage anything approaching the expression of an independent point of view.
"All board members are expected to support the board decision. Once the decision has been made, it's time to move on to the next critical issue. Efforts by board members to revisit previous decisions or secure belated public support will only distract from the future work of the board," the policy states.
The new rules even include suggested statements board members might make to fend off outside inquiries.
"Member may wish to state, 'I didn't vote for the proposal but the decision was made and I support the work of the full board.' Members may explain their position without appearing to undermine the decision of the board," the rules state.
Bullying people this way would be verboten if it were done on the playground. This board accepted it at the urging of the administration and the Illinois Association of School Boards.
So once again, we have a situation where rather than being responsive to and reflective of the public that elected them, members of appointed and elected boards choose to become a voice of the central administration rather than act as independent elected officials.
Some of the new rules are innocuous, suggesting not taking a stance on an issue until they learn about it, not engaging in private conversations during meetings, staying on-topic and listening to one another.
But there is no mistaking what these rules are really all about — maintaining an image of public harmony and downplaying any hint of controversy surrounding board decisions.
How can adults who ran for and won a seat on the school board allow themselves to be persuaded to take such an obsequious approach? Further, why would they think this supine role serves the public interest?
There is no mistaking that the goal of this policy is to limit communication with the public and ensure that any communication that does take place toes the official line.
The policy states that "expressing your opinion to individuals is acceptable to fellow members" but "sending information electronically to groups is a function performed by the district on behalf of the full board."
Dealing with the news media is supposed to be limited to "the board president or the superintendent at their discretion," although it says that "individual members may conduct interviews after a meeting in order to assist the media in performing their work."
Board members should repudiate this policy. They have little to lose but their chains. As for the voting public, be advised that nothing approaching candor will come from school board members elected to run the Urbana schools.