School board flunks class on open government

Freedom Newspapers

No one was surprised Tuesday when the Clovis Municipal School Board voted to continue its long-standing 6:30 a.m. monthly meetings. This board of veteran community members has shown little interest in change. And certainly it has little interest, if any, for issues that board newcomer Mark Lansford raises — especially his ideas for involving the public in the board’s decisions.
But one idea expressed in Tuesday’s meeting did catch us by surprise: Board member George Banister seemed to be expressing opposition to the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government and FOG’s Executive Director Bob Johnson.
“What is your relationship to (Johnson)?” Banister asked Lansford. “Are you his buddy, too? Are you trying to further his special interests?”
We spoke with Banister about his comments on Thursday. We’re relieved to report that Banister said he’s not opposed to open government, which is FOG’s only special interest. He told us he had no idea who or what FOG was about and — now that he knows — said he regrets his words.
We’re disappointed Banister did not know about FOG or Johnson, who was in Clovis just a few weeks ago promoting open government with representatives from the state’s attorney general’s office. We’re also disappointed Banister chose to speak at all on a subject he knew nothing about; it makes us wonder if he’s talking — or voting — on anything else he doesn’t understand.
But at least he said he regrets his comments and insisted he’s committed to open government. Banister even told us he’s open to the possibility of allowing public comment at school board meetings, so long as they don’t take up too much time.
That sounds like a start, maybe.
Banister said he’s not opposed to all ideas about public involvement in board meetings, he just prefers chains of command and policies that he said have proven successful for many years. He’s also distrustful of Lansford and therefore reluctant to support Lansford’s motions for change.
Indeed, in his year on the board, Lansford has caused quite a stir. This is a board with a history of unanimous votes and harmony with district officials, led by Superintendent Neil Nuttall. Not all of that is bad, of course. But a Lansford vote of note occurred last February when his was the only vote not to renew Nuttall’s contract.
And Lansford has tried and failed, repeatedly, to make it easier for the public to place items on the board’s agenda for discussion. Lately he has tried — and failed — to eliminate the 6:30 a.m. meetings on grounds that most people can’t attend board meetings so early.
We don’t believe all of Lansford’s ideas are necessarily good, but we applaud his tenacity and hope he continues his commitment to expanding community involvement in our public schools.
Board President Lora Harlan and Banister are right in saying that some members of our community would be unable to attend school board meetings no matter when they’re held. But that’s no reason not to schedule meetings where public input is more likely to occur than it is around sunrise.
We have no problems with holding public discussions on school issues at different times and locations, several times a year — so long as the decisions and most major issues are limited to the regular, twice-monthly night meetings when the public is most likely able to attend.
While the morning meetings are an issue Lansford will stand on alone for now, there should be no debate about this: The Clovis school board should find new ways to encourage more public input, not limit it. This board should go out of its way to allow more public oversight of its actions, not less.
And it should embrace the idea of working with New Mexico’s Foundation for Open Government because FOG’s purpose is simply to ensure that this body, which oversees a large chunk of our tax dollars, follows the letter and spirit of New Mexico’s laws. Doing so would allow the board to hear from more people, many of whom are parents and relatives of our schoolchildren.
School board and administrative officials often bemoan, quite correctly, the lack of parental involvement in their children’s education, because such involvement is known as a building block to their kids’ success. How do you ask the public to be more involved that way, yet shy away from hearing from them on another level? In that context, this board’s stances seem hypocritical. Their actions send an elitist message that only the board and the administration know best, and that the general populace, including parents, have a limited voice.