Columbia County's school board generally does a good job in running the county's growing school system.
But school trustees seem to have forgotten that they were elected to set policy for a public school system, and that they should be publicly accountable to the taxpayers who provide generous funding to operate that school system.
The latest example of the board's troubling retreat toward secrecy came recently when trustees agreed to start voting on student disciplinary appeals behind closed doors.
Why the change? Well, it seems that's the way Richmond County's board has always done it. Richmond County's longtime lawyer is Pete Fletcher, who this year was hired to represent Columbia's school board, too.
Fletcher says it's OK to vote on student discipline in secret. David Hudson, this newspaper's attorney and the state's foremost authority on government open meetings and open records law, says Fletcher's reading of the law is correct. He points out that though it generally is illegal for any government body to vote in secret, the law makes a rare exception for student disciplinary cases.
Here's the catch: The law allows trustees to take these votes in secret; it does not require those votes be taken in secret.
Columbia County's school board, until recently, took all its votes in public, including those on student discipline. Student names were never mentioned; the cases were cited only by number. But the public could at least see how individual trustees voted.
No longer. Under Fletcher's advice, trustees now hide behind the single exclusion allowed in the law to vote in secret, and their overall, up-or-down decision isn't even announced until a day later.
This added secrecy is just the latest step toward shutting the public out. But rather than compare the school board to Fletcher's other client in the next county, contrast it with the Board of Commissioners right here in Columbia County:
At Columbia County Commission meetings, members of the public are given five minutes to comment. In addition, citizens usually are allowed to speak or raise questions during meetings regarding items under discussion. The School Board allows members of the public just three minutes to comment; Chairman Regina Buccafusco pointedly informs each speaker that he or she will be timed, and reminds them that the board will not respond to their comments.
County Commission sessions are videotaped, then broadcast Saturday mornings on cable TV and archived for public access on the county's Web site. The School Board makes an audio recording of its sessions - and then destroys it as soon as a secretary summarizes the meeting minutes.
If citizens of Columbia County are content with this lack of access to the policy-making body that spends most of their tax dollars, their silence will only lead to less access. If they aren't, they must speak out. The school board hasn't prohibited that - yet.
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