Four years ago, the watchword during the election campaign in Riverside School District 96 was “communication.”
And, true to their word, members of the school board did enact some measures to improve communication with the public. The amount of material made available online — board packets, planning documents, the e-backpacks, official communications from the board and administration — has been very helpful for anyone interested in finding out what the school board is considering.
Despite those efforts, “communication” remained an important aspect of the most recent election campaign. And for good reason. While the school board has made documents available, the board itself is still viewed as insular and opaque.
Part of that, we believe, is the result of advice the board received from its previous legal counsel, including the belief that it would somehow be a violation of the Open Meetings Act to answer a question from a resident about a topic not on the agenda during the open comment portion of board meetings. Or the decision by the board that it must speak with one voice on matters of great importance.
Both are nonsense. Residents deserve to have their questions answered, insofar as no confidential information is disseminated in the process. And there is no law, suggestions from the Illinois Association of School Boards aside, that requires one opinion on a subject be expressed by school boards.
Part of the “communication” problem people have with D96 is that they get the impression they are confronted by a monolith whenever they have a question.
The board last night began a Q&A session prior to its board meeting, featuring two board members. The point of the sessions is for residents to be able to ask anything they want of the board, since the board won’t be constrained by rules regarding open meetings.
While we appreciate this attempt toward openness, we’re not convinced it’s either necessary or that it will prove effective in the long run. It will serve to steer potentially unpleasant questions and topics into a more private setting, which the board may desire, but our guess is that there will be a lot of “we’ll get back to you on that question” responses, since no one on this board feels comfortable speaking out of turn.
By July 1, there will have been many changes in D96. There will be a new superintendent, two new principals, three new board members and new board leadership.
It’s time for this school board to free itself from past practices and really start to open up to the community it serves. That means frank, open discussions between board members and with residents at board meetings. It means communicating directly with the public when they have questions, even if it’s uncomfortable to do so.
The D96 Board of Education truly is on the brink of a new era. Here’s hoping the board embraces the desire to open lines of communication with residents, who can also be a great resource for helping improve the district in the future.