This week, the Shawnee Mission School Board passed a rule outlawing criticism of its members at open forum meetings. I take partial blame for this. Apparently my question at a May meeting about a blatant conflict of interest by one board member spooked them enough to muzzle the public that elected them.
Look, when you can treat ethical flimsiness with a cocktail of avoidance, distraction and censorship, you’ve just got to do it.
Any remarks at the open forum, the board said in its new manual of procedures, “are expected to be presented in a constructive and positive manner.” In the name of good faith, then, I’ve workshopped a sample question that is both constructive and positive:
Can you pretty, pretty please, with a dozen cherries on top, explain why a simple public-records request from the Shawnee Mission Post seeking the amount of money the district has spent on legal fees in 2017 was answered not with a dollar figure but an opaque note written in legalese?
(Pause. Smile. Flutter eyelashes.)
This is what it’s like to be the parent of an Shawnee Mission School District student in 2017. It’s frustrating. It’s confusing. It’s maddening. The district answers a question about legal fees by incurring more legal fees. The district, once the jewel of public education in Kansas City, now excels in the art of the self-inflicted wound.
And as my tax dollars contribute to the $230 million-plus the board distributes, and as my son is one of more than 27,000 children whose educational well-being the board oversees, I’m struck by the district’s lack of respect for its constituency. Transparency from school boards is not a goal. It’s a necessity. It’s why at the May meeting I asked Deb Zila, the board member whose daughter works for a company that manages benefits for the district, why she didn’t recuse herself from the vote that awarded the business a contract.
In addressing my question, board member Craig Denny told The Star’s Katy Bergen that it was “less of a complaint than an attack.”
He’s right. I was attacking the entrenched hubris and myopia of a board whose idea of policy is obstructing citizens from their right to criticize individuals worthy of criticism.
Another board member, Cindy Neighbor, called my question an “accusation.”
She’s right. I was accusing Zila of failing to address an obvious conflict. I was accusing the board of lacking the courage and conviction to rebuke one of its own for doing so. And, implicitly, I was accusing voters of allowing a cadre of thin-skins to populate their school board.
It’s what made Nov. 7 so promising. The electorate sought new voices. Denny ran for the seat he’d held for 20 years and lost. Neighbor didn’t even make it out of a primary. The three the public did choose — Heather Ousley, Laura Guy and Mary Sinclair — ran, in part, on a platform of openness. Along with incoming president Brad Stratton, a transparency advocate, they represent a commitment to accountability.
And lest anyone question the effect of public voices, look a little closer at that manual of procedures the board adopted. Beyond the efforts to stifle voices in the open forum is a line that previously did not exist: Board members will “recognize conflict of interests, disclose such interests to the board president and superintendent and recuse yourself from related action.”
Aimed at the right people and offered with the right intentions, criticism works. It affects change. It is vital. Here’s hoping the district’s overhauled school board understands that better than its predecessor, which earned every last whit of denunciation and more.
Jeff Passan is a columnist for Yahoo! Sports. He wrote for The Star from 2004 to 2006. He lives in Prairie Village.
This column originally mistakenly stated that Cindy Neighbor did not run in the primary election.