Open up those committee meetings!

The Athens City School District has formed three committees, each with a cast of dozens, to provide input on the design process for the district’s three planned new schools. They reportedly will help the architects and district leadership develop basic concepts for the building designs, and to “share” those ideas with the public. More on that later.

The committee membership, devised by School Supt. Tom Gibbs, includes a wide cross-section of stakeholders from inside and outside the School District, including administrators (Gibbs, for example, serves on each of the three committees), teachers, parents and other community members, School Board members and non-teaching staff, as well as Tony Schorr, head of the architectural firm that’s designing the new schools, and two associates from an Athens firm, RVC Architects.

To the superintendent’s credit, the membership of the three committees reflects what seems like a good-faith effort to include as many different people as possible with a direct stake in how the new schools are planned and designed.

What’s not so great is Gibbs’ decision to have the three committees meet behind closed doors. That seems like a direct block to the sort of transparency that district parents, teachers and other community members have been demanding from the Athens City School District since the school facilities planning process began over a year ago.

The fact that 5,357 district residents voted against the capital improvements levy in November just reinforces the need for openness in the school planning process. The levy, dubbed Issue 3 on the local ballot, passed with 6,302 (or 54 percent) voters saying yes. That’s not exactly a thunderous mandate.

While not making these committee meetings public appears to technically abide by Ohio’s Sunshine Law, that doesn’t make it right. Matters of high importance to School District residents and taxpayers, being chewed over by individuals appointed by the superintendent, a public official, and that may (or may not) be incorporated into the superintendent’s recommendation to the School Board, should not be discussed behind closed doors.

And I’m not even necessarily talking about this in terms of local news media access. In reality, the stretched-thin media outlets of Athens, including our threadbare A-NEWS newsroom, likely won’t be able to send a reporter to every one, or even most, of these committee meetings. 

Yet, residents of the district, as well as teachers and staff, who care deeply about this school planning process should have the right to witness and monitor the discussions that may lead to what sort of schools district children will attend for decades into the future (and for which many residents and business owners’ property taxes will be paying). Likewise, without attending these committee meetings, citizens will have a difficult time assessing how much of the committee members’ input gets incorporated into the eventual school designs, not to mention what exactly district tax revenues will be paying for.

To be fair, the committee process, as explained by Supt. Gibbs, will allow for some public input outside of the committee meetings. Last week, Gibbs explained, “The idea is that… these are people that are out talking to people in their community… listening for unique ideas or listening for patterns of ideas.” Ideally, he added, committee members will bring ideas and feedback from the community to the committee meetings for discussion. Then, he said, the committees will host or attend public meetings to share that information with the community and gather more feedback.

In arguing for closed committee meetings, however, Gibbs pulled his rationale from the same well that thousands of other public officials who eschew transparency have drawn from – the idea that citizens won’t feel “comfortable” stating their honest opinions in a public forum.

This seems like a red herring, since the committees themselves are so large (around 18 people in one, 40 in another and 50 in the third) that anybody shy about speaking in public likely will be shy whether the meetings are open or not.

The superintendent also argued that by making the committee meetings public, they would have to develop and follow an agenda and parliamentarian rules of order, both of which would kill flexibility and spontaneity. This is likely not true, however, since in this case, opening the meetings would be a choice rather than a legal requirement.

In any event, even if these concerns carry some water, it’s not enough to counterbalance the substantial value of holding discussions about matters of significant public interest in front of that public.

So, like I said at the start, open the committee meetings.

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