Board should speak up

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By Stephen Key

Some Wayne Township School Board members in Indianapolis have decided not to speak to reporters.

Their voice will now be that of paid district spokeswoman Mary McDermott-Lang.

That was the message delivered to The Indianapolis Star reporter Bill McCleery and WRTV-Channel 6 reporter Kara Kenney.

Since current questions surround the board’s agreement in 2007 to give now-retired superintendent Terry Thompson a retirement package of $800,000-plus, I understand why they might be reluctant to speak.

Three years after the retirement agreement was approved, Wayne Township Schools has had to eliminate some programs, freeze administrators’ pay and reduce some teaching positions through attrition, according to a story by McCleery. The 2007 deal now doesn’t look as good to the board.

But embarrassment isn’t a reason for elected officials to dodge reporters’ questions.

The media serves as a proxy for citizens – attending public meetings that a citizen’s schedule might prevent. Reporters ask questions that would be on the minds of those who voted for the school board. In this case, Wayne Township taxpayers surely are wondering: “What were you thinking?”

Questions posed by a reporter and included in a newspaper article or news broadcast help voters understand the quality of representation they are getting from an elected official.

The questions and answers can put into context the difference in the school district’s financial situation in 2007 compared to early 2011.

They can explain how board members were unaware of the value of the total package they agreed to give Thompson, who was a well-respected leader of the school district – even chosen 2010 Indiana School Superintendent of the Year by his peers.

Those Wayne Township citizens are not well-served by board members who refuse to articulate the reasons behind a policy decision but prefer to hide behind the practiced and professional tongue of a spokeswoman – someone who did not cast a vote and can’t speak to the personal motivations of any individual board member for a vote taken three years ago.

If Wayne Township school board members can’t handle the heat of media questions then they need to get out of the proverbial kitchen.

Stephen Key is executive director and general counsel of HSPA.