Beaufort County Board of Education members are free to discuss public policy and cannot be muzzled by staff or fellow board members.
It’s the law.
It’s in the Constitution.
And school board policies that go against the law need to be killed immediately.
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These hard-fought freedoms are deeply cherished in America and are a keystone to democracy. For our dysfunctional school district to run counter to those freedoms is a disgrace that good people should not allow to stand.
To board chairman Mary Cordray, who last week led the public shaming of a fellow board member who dares to exercise her freedoms, we say that her model of governance is unappreciated, unbecoming and unproductive.
Her three-page letter that was a beat-down of member JoAnn Orischak was approved by a 7-3 vote on the board. It is a new low for a school board that has steadily lost its credibility since the public learned last year that Superintendent Jeff Moss had changed district standards when his wife was hired to a newly created, $90,000 central office job. The contrast between the board’s ho-hum reaction to that affront and the way it treated Orischak for doing nothing wrong is beyond discouraging.
Orischak was chastised for allegedly telling the public some things said in “executive session,” the secret sessions this board clings to like Linus’ blanket.
But if Orischak, or any board member, chooses to say what took place in the secret meetings, it is perfectly legal and within their rights to do so. Nothing in state law precludes a board member from talking about it. Now, there are some personnel and other matters from executive sessions that could by law be protected from public disclosure. But this community needs to quickly come to an understanding that going into “executive session” by no means muzzles school board members.
And if a board member walks out of a secret meeting because it covers things that should be discussed in public, that is a good thing.
Local policies to the contrary must go.
And so should the legalistic public attacks on a fellow board member. What mean-spirited pettiness. How disgraceful. What thin skin. Is this how America works? An elected school board member will either walk lock-step with the majority and the superintendent or be publicly humiliated by the board chairman?
Cordray called it “a formal request that you cease and desist from all actions which adversely affect the functions and operations of the District and the School Board.”
In reality, it is a ham-fisted bullying tactic that would have the school board cease and desist from being a public body, with publicly elected members beholden to the public, enjoying all their rights of free speech.
Board policies say members are obligated to refer complaints back into the school system, respect decisions of the full board and not take actions that undermine those decisions. Members also agree they “will not publicly express individual negative judgments about the superintendent,” its policies say.
That’s all a bunch of poppycock, and it needs to go.
American democracy is called sausage-making for good reason. What goes into the process — with all the give-and-take, questions and differing opinions — can be ugly at times. But that public process represents our national strength. It’s what separates us from Cuba. And that freedom cannot be curtailed by school board policies.