TIMES EDITORIAL: Schools fail to shine enough light

In its most recent misstep, the Coffee County Board of Education may have inadvertently bitten off more than it can chew.

The announcement on March 5 that the school system would no longer send out notices of meetings but, instead, would post them online, led to some digging by this newspaper that shows the schools likely failed to provide adequate notices for public meetings long before the March 5 announcement.

How ironic. A move that would cast a shadow over public knowledge has instead been put directly under the bright light of the Sunshine Law.

It’s doubtful the school system and director Dr. LaDonna McFall proceeded with this decision with any malice or questionable motives.

The intention probably was to save money by saving paper, as cited. But those savings absolutely cannot come at the cost of taxpayer knowledge.

Posting school board meetings and agendas to the Internet is a fine idea and is commendable. In fact, it actually shows an entity prepared to be even more open by providing other avenues for the public to obtain information. But posting to the Internet can’t be a substitute for still properly posting notice of public meetings – only in addition to it.

Now we aren’t sure if the school system has been providing proper notice of meetings at all. This newspaper ventured out to three different schools and didn’t find a list of when the meetings are held. According to the board’s policy book, the school buildings are where postings for upcoming meetings are supposed to be. It doesn’t look like they have been posted there at all, according to secretaries who seemed puzzled at the question “how often do you post notice of school board meetings?” So where have the meeting notices been posted for public inspection? That could be problematic.

Tennessee Sunshine Law requires all meetings to be posted to give the public adequate notice to attend, whether the meeting is regularly scheduled or a special-called meeting. Sending a fax to the schools and the media on the Friday before a Monday meeting is hardly adequate notice to the public. It isn’t enough time to be publicized. It’s plenty of notice to a newspaper writer and a school principal. But those people aren’t the general public.

It’s a recipe for disaster for the school system. We called the central office to try and straighten out the definition of “adequate notice” and what would suffice from the board and were met with hostility, sarcasm and the accusation that we were “just trying to make things difficult.”

Actually, we were just trying to make sure things are on the straight and narrow and the people of Coffee County are properly informed of meetings they have a right to attend – where decisions are made regarding our children and multi-million dollar building plans – without having to dig around on a website.

Saying matter-of-factly that “the meetings are at the same time each month” is not a fair argument to those who might be new to the area or may be putting kids in school for the first time. This community is growing. And while that may be true that the meetings are at the same time each month, it is not an inviting mentality to get more people involved.

We believe the school system would be wise to post notices in each school building, the central office, post office and newspapers one week before the scheduled meeting.

Until then the door is wide open for a lawsuit … and that is certain to cost more than a pack of paper.

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Posted on Tuesday, March 19, 2013 at 8:42 am