Un-golden silence

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How quickly the RE-2 School Board forgets. It wasn't too long ago that the board, stung by the crushing defeat of a construction bond issue, came back to the people it works for and asked for guidance.

One of the pieces of advice its constituents gave during a series of cathartic meetings was to be more open and involve the public early in school-related plans.

Now, less than five years later, we see an RE-2 School Board that is slipping back into bad habits. Repeated closed-door meetings to discuss a plan for a north Routt charter school not only have flaunted the law, they show a complete disregard for the people the school board represents the same people who pay to keep the lights on in the room where the closed-door meetings have been held.

In 1995, the school board put together, with little public input, a plan to spend more than $41 million on a new high school. The plan was soundly thrown out by voters that November. After the board recovered from its defeat, a series of meetings were organized. They began as a way to get people on both sides of the high school construction issue together to work out a compromise. They did, and the result was the $25 million renovation of Steamboat Springs High School completed last summer.

But more than a compromise came out of those meetings. The attendees decided it also was time to look at all aspects of the school district operation, from curriculum to communication. Again and again, the board was told that people had a hard time trusting it because of a lack of communication. The public made it clear that it wanted a school board that conducts its business in public.

It got one for a while.

Unfortunately, we are now seeing a school board that seems to have forgotten lessons it learned. It has been approached by a group of north Routt County residents who want without a lot of attention to get approval for a public charter school in their part of the county. The north Routt group and the school board met in an executive session June 26 to discuss the idea and the results of a "straw poll" the north Routt residents had conducted. The problem was, it's not legal for a public body such as a school board to negotiate like that in secret. When this newspaper was kept out of the meeting, the school board president and school superintendent were informed in writing of what we saw as a legal misstep on their part.

Instead of admitting their mistake and discussing the the charter school issues in public, the school board scheduled a follow-up executive session Aug. 7 to debate the matter. This time, the north Routt group was not present, so the school board met the letter of the open meetings law, if not the spirit.

School board members and the superintendent say the reasons they have to keep the charter school discussions secret is because we, the public, would not be able to understand all the complicated and sensitive issues involved. But once the school board members have worked through them, we've been assured, the public will be informed.

It's an insulting way to do public business.

This community is paying off a $25 million debt for the school district because we were well informed of the plan beforehand. We also gave our trust to the school board again last fall by approving an eight-year extension of the half-cent sales tax. Yet the school board believes that when it comes to a new charter school, which would siphon off dollars from other schools in the district, we're not to be trusted with information until just before a decision is made, which it plans to do Aug. 14.

The RE-2 School Board knows better. It should take a step back and invite the public in, or risk repeating a mistake it has made before.

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