Some Clovis school teachers want to wear blue jeans to class, but school administrators won’t let them. The differences recently created headlines for a couple of days.
In a way, the issue is almost too trivial for extended debate. But it has focused attention on a far more serious — and longer-lasting — matter: the freedom to speak freely before, of all places, our local school board.
The alarm sounded last month when a school board member was denied his request to have the dress-code issue placed on the board’s agenda for discussion. He was told he and others couldn’t be heard when they wanted to because it already was being studied by a policy committee. That response riled up a few folks because it translates as a “We know best, so be quiet and wait till those who know more than you do cogitate on the matter.”
Board member Mark Lansford said he made his request after several teachers asked him to have the board consider the matter. He followed protocol and asked school Superintendent Neil Nuttall to place the item on the agenda. His request was denied.
Nuttall said board President Lora Harlan denied Lansford’s request. The superintendent said he and Harlan noted that a school policy committee is reviewing the blue denim issue and will make a policy recommendation once it’s completed the review.
We don’t take issue with the committee. It was chosen by teachers and staff, and sounds like a good idea, in fact. But why should that prevent Lansford or others from bringing the issue to the school board, which has authority over the policy group, for public discussion beforehand? The more comments, the richer the discussion, the more all sides have a chance to be heard fully. Why, who knows, the policy committee itself could even learn a few facts from such free-flowing debate.
The school district’s policy for requesting that items be placed on the agenda was adopted in 1994, and reads:
“Anyone with an item pertaining to school business may obtain a position on the Regular Board Meeting Agenda by requesting in writing to the Superintendent to be placed on the agenda no less than two (2) working days before the date of the requested appearance.”
That’s a confusing policy. It needs to be changed for several reasons. First, it leaves too much room for interpretation. Just because someone “may obtain a position” on the agenda, does not mean they will succeed in doing so. All over these United States, many an average citizen’s good intentions have been buried in the chasm that public officials dig with the waffling word may, to control the debate and direction of a lot of public policy.
By all accounts, Lansford followed procedures outlined in the policy, yet his request was still denied. If an elected school board member can’t bring a controversial issue before the board, what chance does the average citizen have?
Second, the policy fails to clarify who has the authority to place items on the agenda – or who has the authority to keep them off. Nuttall said the board president exercises authority over the board’s agenda, not the superintendent. That may be true, but the policy wording says requests go through the superintendent.
Those words are at the crux of the problem that’s been uncovered by this tempest in blue jeans. How? Bob Johnson is executive director for New Mexico’s Foundation for Open Government. He said Clovis’ policy is improper because it suggests the superintendent oversees the school board.
In fact, the superintendent works for the school board.
Most Clovis residents have a lot of confidence in the leadership of Clovis’ schools, as suggested by results of last week’s vote by district taxpayers to fund $5 million in structural improvements. Almost 80 percent voted yes because Nuttall and his team have done well to repair and upgrade our aging schools in recent years.
Which is why not wanting to hear input on the blue-jeans question is puzzling. With that kind of support, school officials should welcome public policy discussions any time. What better forum than school board meetings?
A well-intentioned school board back in 1994 approved a vague policy that allows one or two individuals to control the meeting agendas. Every school board since, including this one, has given its blessing to that policy by not changing it, and now we all are, in a sense, victims of its incompleteness.
We won’t comment on whether school teachers should be banned fully from wearing blue jeans to class. That is a matter for teachers, administrators, the school board and the policy committee, as well as any parent who wants to pipe up, to decide. However, we believe this issue should — not may — inspire Lansford, Harlan and other school board members to hear this clarion call for clarity. They should rewrite this confusing agenda policy so that any and all voices might be heard.
The question to be answered: Will they?