Columbia Countys Board of Education isnt renowned for seeking public input. The citizen-comment portions of its meetings are among the areas more restrictive, and speakers are timed to make sure they dont exceed the three-minute limit. And in recent years, public forums have been few and far between.
Its good news, then, that Chairman Wayne Bridges has called for just such a forum Monday, July 28, to offer citizens an opportunity to hear - and perhaps say - more about a study of the issue of allowing voters to pick the person who presides over the school board.
Weve been consistent in reporting skepticism of the boards willingness to give the issue honest appraisal. Board members only reluctantly agreed to study the issue after 85 percent of voters in a Republican Party straw poll said theyd like to be able to vote for the chairman. Then, trustees nearly nit-picked the idea to death before finally appointing a committee that, predictably, echoed the boards disdain for the idea.
State Sen. Joey Brush says his dad used to describe such groups as cold-water committees: Theyd put them together to throw cold water on an idea, Brush laughs. But he wonders why members of the local legislative delegation were neither contacted by the task force nor sent copies of its report.
To Bridges credit, hes holding the forum to take up such issues. If anybody has any questions, thats where they need to come to ask their questions, he said. Its just one of those things where its time to have this public forum and let people air their concerns, or lack of concerns, and get to the bottom of it and move forward one way or the other.
The forum will undoubtedly provide an opportunity for trustees and members of the committee to defend their work. They also can explain how their rejection of the issue could so closely mirror trustees misgivings, at odds with voters views.
Local lawmakers are leaning toward bringing the issue to a vote next year in the November General Election. If such a referendum materializes from the 2004 legislative session, Bridges and the school board should plan another forum so they, the committee members and other opponents of electing the chairman could fully air their views.
Then, after the vote, no one could easily dismiss the outcome - especially if, as expected, voters again state their preference for picking the person who presides over those tightly controlled school board meetings.
One point that ought to be aired in the forum: School trustees have taken an offhand comment by Brush and turned it into a call for expanding the school board from five members to seven.
Trustees last December asked members of the local legislative delegation why they thought voters would want to elect the board chairman. I guess they want more representation, said Brush.
Trustees and their task force have since misconstrued that comment to mean voters literally want more elected officials.
During the debate over setting up the County Commission chairmanship as an elected position, proponents frequently noted that the change would allow voters to help choose two members of the commission instead of just one. Voters could cast one ballot for a district elected commissioner, and another for the at-large chairman.
Now that such a system is in place, it means each citizen has a hand in selecting two-fifths of the County Commission - while still voting for just one-fifth of the school board.
Thats the more people Brush was talking about. It means more authority reserved for citizens - not more politicians trying to exercise it.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to bpaschal at newstimesonline.com.)
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