Putting public back in schools

Don't expect to raise issues spontaneously during Orange County School Board meetings. Two weeks' notice is required to reserve a spot on the meeting agenda. And who are those guys in $2,000 suits with the board's undivided attention? CountyWatch, a nonpartisan organization promoting open and accountable government, recently released an 11-page report urging the school board to respond to these and other questions about how it conducts business. "The schools have been the subject of a great deal of criticism recently," said Bob Spears, the group's chairman. "Here's some additional things they could do that would probably result in better citizen involvement. That's really the only way the schools are going to become what we want them to be." To encourage public participation, the report advises the board to allow public comment before every vote and at work sessions. TV monitors should display reports, rather than board members' faces. Signs and staff should guide citizens to meetings. Bulletins and long-term agendas should be made available to help people prepare for upcoming meetings. And "emergency" designation of rushed agenda items should be limited to true emergencies. "Loose designation of emergency items can quickly destroy public confidence," the report warns. To promote "electronic democracy," meetings should be televised. Materials, as well as board members and new Superintendent Dennis Smith, should be available via the Internet. To renew confidence in the schools, the district should publish user-friendly budgets and form more citizen committees, the report advises. Staff jobs should replace consultants where possible, and tougher guidelines followed in retaining contractors. To cap construction costs, contracts should be written to limit added charges. . The district should plan for growth with other governments. And lobbyists should be required to identify their special interest and file expense reports. "In some cases, they're trying to do some of these things," Spears says. "I think the school board is ready for change." Perhaps, but the school board had no response by presstime. On Aug. 26, the school board is expected to consider the report. Of course, Spears' group knew better than to show up unannounced.
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