An incident at the last Winona public school board meeting on Thursday night highlights once again the lack of understanding by many elected officials that they are public figures, and therefore open to criticism from members of the public. Not only elected officials, in this case school board members, but certainly employees of the school district are by their very nature public figures. The public is privy to much more information about them — their salaries, benefits, work contracts, etc. — than would be available to the public concerning employees of private concerns and businesses. The public also has the right to criticize the performance of these public employees.
The reason for this is simple: elected officials and government employees are beholden to the public — the taxpayers who pay their salaries, pay for their place of employment, and pay for their benefits all through enforced taxation. It is at the public’s behest that we have, for instance, public education. Members of the public have elected people to set up and oversee a public education system, and the people in that system serve at the will of the people.
If the people, the taxpayers, don’t like something about the way public education is doing business, it is within their right to say so.
This is apparently a hard concept to grasp for some school board members and employees of Winona Area Public Schools. At Thursday’s school board meeting, during the period set aside for public comment, a member of the public, Jeanne Nelson, addressed the school board.
Ms. Nelson in her address took to task the performance of Interim Superintendent Scott Hannon and his administration at a meeting at Central School earlier in the week. The board has voted to close Central as an elementary school at the end of this school year. Parents of children in the Central attendance area had asked for illumination from the district as to what they can expect for their children at the new schools to which they have been assigned, one of which — W-K — is currently not meeting the state’s Adequate Yearly Progress requirements in reading for a large percentage of its white and free and reduced lunch students.
The Tuesday meeting at Central was not made public, and at least two school board members at Thursday’s meeting seemed upset that not even they were made aware of it. Ms. Nelson characterized the meeting as totally unsatisfactory to the parents in attendance, with the WAPS administration seemingly unable to answer simple questions such as how large their children’s new classes would be.
Nelson also criticized the way the decision was made to close Central and to ignore the suggestions of a school board appointed committee that recommended a magnet school in the Central building. She said she believed that the school board and superintendent had created a committee to fail, and blamed the superintendent for imposing a $465,000 cost on the committee’s plan (a number that was disputed at the time).
It was at this point that several school board members, and Interim Supt. Hannon, became agitated and called for a “point of order.” Chair Fellman then gaveled Ms. Nelson down saying that the public comment time was not a time for personal attacks. The rest of the circus that ensued is chronicled in a story on page one of today’s Post.
“Public comment time is not a time for personal attacks.”
What can this possibly mean? Did Ms. Nelson attack anyone personally? No. She did, however, rather eloquently attack the performance of the administration of the public schools in Winona, and its school board. And that is well within her rights as a citizen for whom the Winona Area Public Schools and its employees and board are supposed to be working.
Chair Fellman and several of his cohorts on the present board and previous boards seem to think that the public school district with its $40 million dollar taxpayer generated budget is their own private business. They seem think that the public is not only annoying in its insistence to be privy to school board business but should be silenced when public criticism is given.
We all have a right to expect the truth. We all have a right to expect government work (yes, running public schools is government work) to be done in the open, expeditiously and with honesty at every step of the way. We all have the right to expect that our school board members and public school employees understand that in exchange for our money, and for the gift of our trust in them to care for our children, they have given up the right to “privacy” concerning their job performance.