- San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas - http://smmercury.com -

Editorial: San Marcos CISD needs to remember … it's public

By the San Marcos Local News Editorial Board

Through the years, the media in San Marcos hasn’t been sufficiently attentive to the proceedings of the San Marcos CISD Board of Trustees, or the administration. Unaccustomed as they must be to operating in the presence of reporters or other public observers, perhaps it’s understandable that school officials would misunderstand the law.

But it’s not understandable that, under conditions of ignorance, they would err on the side of darkness. As the highest taxing entity in any Texas community, school districts don’t merely owe transparency to the public. School districts are essentially public business and are therefore obligated at the core of their existence and function to operate in the open, without tricks or deception. That’s the law, and it is the right law.

On June 24, the trustees called a special meeting. Here is how the agenda read:

I. Call to Order
A.  Roll Call – Establish Quorum
II. Budget Workshop
III. Discussion of Current Issues
IV. Adjourn

The “current issues” under discussion included an adjustment in the school district’s sex education policy to adopt “abstinence plus,” which involves teaching about abstinence and contraception. The present policy is to teach abstinence only.

Another topic under “current issues” was the establishment of an academy structure at San Marcos High School. Unlike abstinence plus, the academy program had been somewhat discussed previously in public. The abstinence plus discussion came completely from the dark, and no one outside of the inner school loop had any idea that a topic of such fundamental importance to this community was under consideration. By fudging the agenda and by other action at that meeting, which will be taken up later in this discussion, school officials really let this community down.

The sex education topic is on the agenda, properly, for Monday night’s school board meeting. As to the June 24 agenda, we believe that placing “discussion of current issues” on that agenda without specifically mentioning that one of the issues would be sex education constitutes a violation the Texas Open Meetings Act.

On October 6, 2008, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott issued an opinion in which he said meeting notices posted by governmental bodies that are “general and generic” in nature do not “sufficiently notify a reader, as a member of the interested public, of the subjects … to be discussed at any particular meeting.” Abbott also noted that courts have established the precedent whereby provisions of the Open Meetings Act are to be “liberally construed in favor of open government,” in the words of a 2007 Texas appeals court decision. Abbott also cited a 1986 Texas Supreme Court decision in which justices ruled that notices “should specifically disclose the subjects to be considered at the upcoming meeting … particularly where the subject slated for discussion is one of special interest to the public.”

An open government hotline attorney with the Texas Attorney General’s Office declined to offer comment regarding the school board’s actions, but referred to Abbott’s 2008 aforementioned opinion, Opinion No. GA-0668.

Said San Marcos CISD Superintendent Patty Shafer in response: “Generally, for regular board meetings, you’ll see everything very specifically listed, and this was just a time when they wanted to talk about a variety of different things that have been brought up. So normally, in special workshops, sometimes you don’t list everything in the way you do in the regular board meetings … I feel pretty secure in that, but next time we have one, I might want to go ahead and double-check with our attorney to be sure. My understanding was we were okay, but if it’s something that seems to be a matter of concern, then I might want to check with him before the next meeting that we have like that. We hardly ever have those. This is kind of an unusual thing. It’s just that there were a lot of things out there they wanted (to discuss). If we should be listing more specifically, we’ll definitely do that, though. We’re trying to do everything in the proper way. Not to say we don’t make mistakes sometimes, but we’re trying to.”

We’ll accept that. But there’s more. San Marcos Local News sent a reporter, Sean Batura, to that meeting. Shafer demanded that Batura turn off his audio recording device. Shafer said the school district’s attorney told her she could prohibit the public from making audio recordings of the meeting.

A few days later, Shafer conceded that board meetings can be recorded, though recording devices must be placed in locations authorized by the district. Shafer said the attorney disallowed the taping because the district did not have adequate time to review the current law, and said the district would not have been caught off guard had the reporter submitted a request to record beforehand. No such request is required by the Open Meetings Act, though the law allows a governmental body to “adopt reasonable rules to maintain order at a meeting, including … rules relating to the location of recording equipment.”

Needless to say, we’re appalled by Shafer’s demand, which cuts straight against the heart of the public’s interest to be informed of the school board’s activities in a public forum. School districts have no business being “caught off guard” by anyone with a recorder at a board meeting, because they’ve missed the point if they’re on their guard in the first place.

A year ago, a school board candidate, who lost, argued that trustees meetings ought to be broadcast so people in the community can see them in action. The arguments against the candidate’s position amounted to an insistence that money and logistics made such an initiative untenable. In light of this most recent episode, it would appear there’s more to it than that.

Public school districts pay good money to school administrators and their public information officers, who are ostensibly hired to provide facts to citizens and, in practice, can wind up marketing the interests of the administrators and politicians who hire them. Thus, a certain evasion of reality concerning the public’s interest in the school district grows into school administration. But when that evasion ascends to the level of prohibiting anyone from recording a public meeting of a public entity that is subsidized by public expenditure, we have witnessed a serious loss of perspective and purpose.

We remind San Marcos CISD that its business is public business, and it is the public’s business and prerogative to know and understand the school district’s proceedings. Interference with the public’s pursuit of such knowledge, particularly on matters of central social importance such as sex education in schools, is not to be tolerated.

No Comments (Open | Close)

No Comments To "Editorial: San Marcos CISD needs to remember … it's public"

#1 Comment By Jim Bohan On 07/18/2010 @ 11:27 am

Good job! Glad to see someone is still awake out there and looking after local issues rather than which entertainer of the week is going to jail. 🙂

#2 Comment By Joe the Coder On 07/18/2010 @ 9:06 pm

Convenient that the school district’s website does not have a method to contact the Superintendent’s office online. This editorial is right on – this kind of behavior is unacceptable, and anyone who shows a regular pattern of operating like this needs to be run out of office – whether they’ve been elected or are a district employee.

#3 Comment By Dave Newman On 07/18/2010 @ 9:38 pm

Transparency in government,…..

is a good thing.

#4 Comment By billygmoore On 07/20/2010 @ 12:00 am

Well, as Thomas Jefferson might have said, if he’d even known what electricity was, or a spermatozoa or an ovum, “Damme! It is contagious!” (Oh, I forgot, THEY still thought all disease was caused by “bad air.” ) Now I really don’t understand–can’t anybody smell the stink of government in the dark, for the few in the preferred circle? Why are public officials so afraid of dire consequences for showing what they know about what, what they believe, what they are doing about it, and whom to blame if the answer is rather “wrong-o!” or “nothing.”

I am not indicting SMCISD or its officials, particularly if the shoe doesn’t fit. It’s just that this stuff is so much of our civic structure these days that it almost seems that is the way the majority expect and/or WANT its business done! Not I. I think I am almost as mature as I may ever get (“a ‘big boy,’) as my mother simply put it, and can probably stand the shock of learning truth about my “representatives.” I’ve expected something for a loooong time, anyway.

#5 Comment By maryandthemoon On 07/28/2010 @ 8:01 am

i hope the superintendent reads this letter – that agenda submitted was a farce as were her excuses. not only is it public money that runs the district, those are OUR CHILDREN,our future that is at stake.

#6 Comment By SamD. On 07/28/2010 @ 10:57 am

Our SMCISD is very administrative heavy (and heavy-handed) and they want to keep it that way. A lot of them are retire-rehires and drawing very good salaries. I think Shafer protects them, but I wished the Board would have the guts to dig deeper into decisions being made (Hello! John Crowley…).

1. How much money (total) has been spent on New Mexico Balanced Literacy consultants? Why did the district collect all the elementary textbooks (some newly adopted and paid for by taxpayers) and place them in a warehouse and not allow teachers access to them even when directly requested?

2. Why did/does our district go to Mexico to hire teachers? In these tough economic times, no American citizen applied for SMCISD jobs? Are our teachers, schooled here in the U.S., not competent enough to teach here?

I have attended several school board meetings and it is disturbing to watch the ‘public speak’ time; the board members tend to look/tap-away at their laptops while the Joe Public is speaking. Joe Public says his piece, stands there awkwardly after finishing. Someone on the board finally looks up (kind of startled to see someone there) and mumbles for him to sit back down. No follow-up questions or any evidence that they heard what he was saying.

#7 Comment By chris north On 07/28/2010 @ 12:01 pm

all true, Sam.

#8 Comment By Winchester On 07/28/2010 @ 12:23 pm

SOS. It seems it stays the same, and will so long as voter turnout is single digit.

#9 Comment By billygmoore On 07/28/2010 @ 12:56 pm

I’ve spoken earlier here in relation to City behavior about just how rude, egregious, irresponsible, and self-consumed it is not acceptable for a public official to telecommute for any reason at the dais. I have in fact tossed some harsh epithets, like “the kind of person who farts in elevators, steals from children (in this case, ironically and horribly true), and does not ‘wash hands before returning to work.'” Seriously. If somebody does that or ignores a speaker, that person should be called out publicly on the spot, maybe recalled if that doesn’t cure them. Such a person is not fit as a public person sworn to do public business with public money. They are hired to pay attention!

It’s OUR children you are snubbing, Binky, even if you don’t like somebody or some position from the podium! Those people are your bosses! Or are you just a one-issue candidate who wants to take revenge on the SMCISD for some real or imagined slight? (Some teacher once call young Cletus a crook or a genetic mistake or a little whiner? Or make him ineligible to blow his horn, wave his flag, or make triumphal touchdowns to make you proud? Only because he sat and drooled, doodled or abused himself in class? Say it ain’t so!)

***Not believing that, or not believing it can be changed, or believing you also will be disrespected and discounted is a big reason the citizens don’t bother to vote. The truly frightening bottom line is, they have no confidence or no interest in representative democracy. That and the tendency for the EIGHT TO TEN PERCENT who bother to vote already, and thus choose leaders much as “them dreaded Com-monists” do, by fiat and the “good ol’ boys, friends and relatives” method.

#10 Comment By billygmoore On 08/02/2010 @ 12:03 pm

I hope Steve and his “Transparency in Government” Munchkins have invited the public free education crowd to their meeting. There will surely be room in the audience, and maybe some interesting and relevant discussion. After all, them people run, get elected, and tax us all, as well. And in the long run, any potential damage they do will be much more serious than the little fiefdoms and Potentate shelters of the City or County. They can spread theirs like…well, like an STD or something.

#11 Comment By Holly Wood On 08/03/2010 @ 2:14 pm

How gratifying to know the San Marcos Local News has stepped up to the plate and is challenging SMCISD trustees to adhere to the letter of the Texas Open Meetings Act. As a veteran of 34 years in newsrooms, I commend you for trying to keep the school board in compliance. The agenda for a workshop should be as detailed as the agenda for a regular or special meeting and their attorney and superintendent should have known that. Perhaps you should provide the superintendent and each trustee with their very own copy of the open meetings act. You are fulfilling your role as the community’s watchdog.