OPINION

School board falls short on accountability

The Examiner

The Independence Board of Education's handling of the school district's mask policy has been troubling in several ways. 

An important point is that the Independence School District has gotten its policies about right regarding COVID-19, with the goal of keeping as many students in class as possible. This disease is vicious, and fighting the pandemic has had far less than full community support, so the burdens on schools are substantial. 

But process also matters hugely in any form of self-government. In the broad picture, it's more important than an individual policy outcome. Elected officials need constant reminders that they are accountable to those who elect them, those who pay the taxes, those who entrust the schools with their children – those in whose name elected officials act. 

And on that score the Independence Board of Education has earned an F. 

The board met in closed session in August to discuss keeping a mask mandate – an entirely sensible policy given the spread of the disease and the fact that vaccines haven't been available to most young people. 

The board took no vote but merely let Superintendent Dale Herl move ahead with what he recommended. That's worrisome, given that this is such an important policy. The board did this behind closed doors, and we cannot in this case take issue with that because, under Missouri law, threatened litigation is an allowed exception to the requirement to discuss public issues in public. Missouri's attorney general, Eric Schmitt, has been targeting and going to court to harass every local government that has tried to do its part to stop the suffering and death of this pandemic. 

But the board blundered badly in refusing to allow meaningful public comment, let alone a constructive back-and-forth conversation. The board refused to let the public speak on this issue at its August meeting. It could have done that in open session, even if it wanted a closed session for its own deliberations. But the board allowed only emails from citizens – and it's not clear that even that option was widely known. 

The hopeful part – hopeful for democracy – is that some citizens took it upon themselves to collect their thoughts, gather evidence and send it all in. Most said do the right thing, the common-sense thing – require masks. 

Would a public meeting that actually involved the public have led to raised voices and hot feelings, as we have seen around the country? There's a good chance of that. That's part of the process. When you run for office, those public conversations – sometimes loud, sometimes misinformed, sometimes tedious, sometimes infuriating – are one of the very things you have signed up for. Elected officials have to face up to that. 

The members of this school board also have failed the public in another way. The Examiner contacted all seven for answers to two simple questions: Do you in fact support the mask mandate? Do you support letting the public have its say on this issue in the future? 

Three responded – each with a no comment. The other four couldn't even be bothered to pick up the phone or return an email to answer simple questions in the public interest. That betrays contempt for the idea of accountability to the people. 

We call on the Independence Board of Education to do better. Self-government in a free society requires transparency and the courage to embrace conversations with all interested parties.