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school boards

September 14, 2020 - 11:23am
posted by Howard B. Owens in school boards, news, education, notify.

In 2018, The Batavian reported on school district policies that prohibited school board members from talking to the public about their individual views on school district policy.

In 2020, only one superintendent -- Mickey Edwards in Byron-Bergen -- informed us that only the superintendent was authorized to speak to reporters about district issues and that any statements from board members needed his approval. If we sought their individual views, they could speak as private citizens but he informed us he didn't have their private email addresses. We issued a FOIL request for their district email addresses, which we received.

Though only one superintendent attempted to claim to be the gatekeeper for school board statements this time around, the practice of school board members continuing to avoid public accountability for their position on policy issues is unabated in 2020.

We attempted to survey every school board member in Genesee County on their views related to school reopening in the age of coronavirus. Only two school board members out of 52 in the county responded with individual answers. Alice Ann Benedict, Batavia city schools, responded via email as requested. John Reigle answered the questions as part of an interview about his appointment as a trustee to Batavia city schools.

The school boards in Byron-Bergen, Le Roy, and Oakfield-Alabama provided group responses. John Cima, board president for Pembroke, provided a response that he said was made on behalf of the board.

We did not offer school boards the option of a group response but they did anyway.

We wonder how many teachers in Genesee County would give their students a failing grade for failure to follow instructions, turning an individual assignment into a group assignment?

There was no response whatsoever from Alexander, Elba, and Pavilion.

School board members are elected individually not as groups. The voting public has a right to know -- and every reason to expect -- what each individual school board member thinks about issues of public importance related to their school districts. The failure to be transparent -- and worse yet, forced group conformity -- deprives the public of a robust public debate, something essential in a healthy democracy, about important issues.

The requirement that the views of school board members go through a vetting process -- either superintendent approval or a homogenized group statement -- clearly violates the very idea of the First Amendment, depriving school board members of their right to speak freely and the press of its responsibility to accurately report on government policy.

This new strategy of a group response under the guise of "we speak with one voice" is no less noxious to the concept of a free and open society. It requires conformity and stifles dissent. It clearly sets up a chilling effect on free speech.

School board members will tell us they willingly go along with this "one voice" policy but we have no real idea which board members secretly feel their individual viewpoints are being unfairly kept from the public. "Individuality is fine as long as we all do it together," Frank Burns said in an episode of "M*A*S*H." That's long been the cry of the conformist in their discomfort with dissent. But good policies can't be fashioned without dissent and dissent can't be tested for its durability without healthy public debate.

These policies, as we saw and reported on in 2018, can even have a chilling effect on candidates for open seats in school board elections. How does a democracy continue to function when candidates for office refuse to answer questions for voters?

The Batavian will continue to press for school board members to be open and honest with the voters who elect them.

Responses to our questions:

Here is a list, by district, of elected officials who did not respond individually to our questions.

Batavia

  • Peter Cecere
  • Shawna Murphy
  • Tanni Bromley
  • Barbara Bowman
  • John Marucci

Alexander

  • Brian Paris
  • Molly Grimes
  • John Slenker
  • Sara Fernaays
  • Chris Mullen

Byron-Bergen

  • Debra List
  • Yvonne Ace-Wagoner
  • Kimberly Carlson
  • William Forsyth
  • Tammy Menzie
  • Amy Phillips
  • Jennifer VanValkenburg

Elba

  • Michael Augello
  • Michael Riner
  • Michael Hare
  • Dean Norton
  • Travis Torrey
  • Trisha Werth
  • Michael Zuber

Le Roy

  • Jacalyn Whiting 
  • Denise Duthe 
  • Christine Dowell 
  • Richard Lawrence  
  • Peter Loftus 
  • William MacKenzie 
  • Lloyd Miller

Oakfield-Alabama

  • Timothy Edgerton
  • Lorna Klotzbach
  • Matt Lamb
  • Justin Staebell
  • Jackie Yunker Davis
  • Pete Zeliff
  • Daniel Groth

Pavilion

  • Marirose Ethington
  • Jeff Finch
  • Margaret Gaston
  • Rebecca Dziekan
  • Kevin Stefan
  • Callin Ayers-Tillotson
  • Christopher Jeffres

Pembroke

  • John A. Cima
  • Heather Wood
  • Ed Levinstein
  • Dan Lang
  • Art Ianni
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