Cloak of secrecy

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Residents of Cumberland County should be concerned about the way our schools and school board are being run.

I have a litany of complaints and examples. I’ll run through them and see if some sort of common thread emerges.

1)   The absurd posturing from the board last year when they threatened to fire all librarians. Revolution isn’t in the mandate of a board of education; they’re to take the budget they receive and do the best with it they can. By all means, a board can and should speak up about mistakes they think the province is making. But engaging in brinksmanship by threatening such a ridiculous gesture does nothing to advance education.

2)   The board’s refusal to be forthcoming with suspension statistics in the wake of last year’s lockdown was unacceptable. All the public was allowed to know was “some” kids were suspended for leaving school property when the facility was in lockdown. But whether that was three kids, or 30 – or 200 – wouldn’t be revealed. The idea it’s none of the public’s business, or that revealing a number somehow breaks privacy rules, is wrong. If 100 students disobeyed and left, that would indicate a clear problem in the way lockdowns are managed. The public has a right to know if that problem exists.

3)   A recent assignment: a story about a problem at a local school. When I went to the school to take a photo (inside), I was told I couldn’t take the photo – for that story. To make this clear: we take photos in schools all the time; but the principal was engaging in censorship: good stories, OK, but bad stories, not OK. It’s not the role of schools or school boards to paint themselves in a positive light. On the contrary, as public institutions dedicated to education, it’s hard to imagine a facility that should have a bigger commitment to truth and transparency. If journalists can only do stories in schools when the news is good – but not when it’s bad – that doesn’t give an accurate picture to the public. It skews the image of our schools in a positive direction. As desirable as a school or board may think that is, they’re wrong. They are public servants who should serve the public interest. (Full disclosure: the principal ion this case came around, after consulting with a board official.)

4)   Who do schools serve? My sense is that too many administrators have a very narrow view of the populations they are responsible for serving. All would say kids, of course, and likely teachers. They might say the school board. What too many don’t seem to care about is the broader public. The school serves students, yes, but also the community, and the community’s right to know should be respected. It usually isn’t (often ‘privacy concerns’ is the red herring used to maintain secrecy, like schools are suddenly CSIS or the NSA). Schools are public agencies, paid for by taxpayers. Parents have a right to know, but so does every citizen and every taxpayer. Taxpayers pay for schools regardless of whether they have children. Have educators never heard the phrase “No taxation without representation”? Yes, one can make a narrow interpretation of this slogan – if you get to vote, you’re represented – but that’s hardly an enlightened view. No, school boards and schools would do well to understand the community is watching, the community has a right to know, and it’s actually to the benefit of our children and even these institutions, if the community is aware.

5)   Principals are not kings. I’ve encountered my share of principals with an inflated sense of their own authority. They may be the rulers of their little kingdoms, but they don’t get to tell people what to do off their own property. For example, they don’t get to tell journalists they can’t take photos on public streets. Incredibly, this happens. A school parade down the main street of one of our towns prompted one principal to tell me I couldn’t take any photos “for security reasons.” Never mind the fact parents were taking pictures, and the school had its own photographer taking pictures – and IT WAS A PUBLIC STREET – I was irresponsible if I took pictures because I might be endangering a child whose parent doesn’t want pictures published. Yes, the old ‘safety’ card. Bureaucrats can justify anything in the name of ‘safety’, like telling the media in a free country they’re not allowed to take photos of big groups of people marching down main thoroughfares. Children should be kept safe, of course, and that’s principally a parent or principal’s responsibility, not a journalist's (I edited that last sentence after posting. Yes, all decent people watch out for kids, but this wasn't an imminent threat by a knife-wielding maniac, rather a danger I personally viewed as remote). Even so, I offered to not take pictures of specific kids if they identified them to me, but they couldn’t.

 

Have I bored you yet? I hope not, because I actually think this is important. I’m one of those old-fashioned people who believes the media has an important role to play in society, and it disturbs the hell out of me that people who are supposed to be educators have so little respect for the role newspapers play informing the public. (Side note: In the more than year I’ve been here, I’m not aware of a single request to this newspaper to have a journalist or editor come to a school to talk about media, news, writing or the job of being a reporter. A single teacher did mention an interest to me, once, and that's as far as it went.)

Corporations are allowed to be private. They’re privately owned. But public services do not have the same claim to privacy. It’s not their job to keep secrets, seek to portray themselves in a positive light, or otherwise spin or distort the truth. When they do that, they harm us and they harm our children. Every one of us, parent or not, has a vested financial and social interest in what schools do.

Finally, it’s incredible to me that people who educate children have so little interest in the bedrocks of democratic, free societies: truth, transparency, trust. What values are they teaching if the way they interact with the broader community, through the portal of the media, is with disinterest, suspicion and obfuscation?

If you’re a teacher or school administrator and you’re offended, good. You’re either one of the good guys who doesn’t want to be painted with a broad brush or you’re one of the self-deluded bad guys who’s guilty of the charges I’ve leveled. If you’re the former, don’t blame me – take action to improve your institution’s track record on these issues. And if you’re the latter, we’ll all just pray you choose a new career path soon. Municipal elections are coming. Vote for change on the school board.

 

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