News From Terre Haute, Indiana

December 1, 2013

EDITORIAL: For NESC, transparency best option

Secrecy during deliberations could make things worse

The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — The five-member board of the Northeast School Corp. of Sullivan County is in the midst of tough times as it faces a difficult decision on the future of its schools, including Union High School in Dugger.

An unforgiving financial picture has brought the board to the brink of closing the high school in order to conserve and redirect valuable resources. Declining population and enrollments in the school district, as well as less state money, are the culprits.

The board could take action as early as Monday, although no one seems willing to explain exactly what that action may be. There are options, but the board isn’t sharing them with the public. After some prodding from constituents deeply affected by the issue, the board did allow interested groups to make presentations at an open session earlier this week. It is now taking the information gathered under consideration.

There are few topics more unpleasant and emotional for a community than school closings or consolidations. For Dugger to lose its high school, or any school, represents a major rip in its educational, economic, cultural and social fabric.

While the school board is responsible for managing the district’s financial resources, it must recognize the impact its decisions have on the communities it serves.

One way to do so is to maintain a high degree of transparency in its deliberations on the issue. Not only does that make common sense, it also makes legal sense.

At the conclusion of last Monday’s session, the board voted to conduct an executive session last Friday, closed to the public, to begin considering what it heard from constituents on all sides of the school reorganization issue. The following day, the district issued a formal notice of the closed session and, as state law dictates, listed its topics, which included school consolidation.

As our Sue Loughlin reported in Friday’s newspaper, Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt cautioned the NESC board about deliberating the consolidation issue behind closed doors. The exception allowing for discussions does not mean the board can merely debate the issue, come to a consensus, then go into a public meeting to take only a vote without any discussion. Indeed, that might be a recipe for legal problems down the line.

With that in mind, the best approach the board can take is to keep deliberations and discussion about reorganization out in the open. That may not be the easiest option for board members, but it will pay dividends in public trust and confidence in the long run.