By LAURIE EZZELL BROWN
Editor/Publisher of The Canadian Record
WHEN SCHOOL OFFICIALS have sought an ally in the battle over school finance legislation, or in local efforts to stir up support for a multimillion-dollar bond issue for capital improvements, this newspaper has always been there. When public school students have excelled in any number of sports and academic competitions over the last few decades, when school nurses have wanted to announce vaccination requirements, when school administrators have wanted to promote parent/teacher open houses, when local merchants have wanted to congratulate students on their many successes, when Rotary Clubs have wanted to acknowledge their school’s student leaders... The Record and other weekly newspapers like it in other towns like this one have always been there.
That is why it is even more puzzling that the Texas Association of School Boards would be on the leading edge of a movement among tax-supported entities to circumvent the state’s public notice laws. Or maybe it’s not so puzzling.
You see, there are things most school boards really want the public to know about their students and their schools. They are the stories and images that fill the pages of most community newspapers from Labor Day through Memorial Day each year, and which most publishers welcome as the vital news and information they know their readers count on finding inside the pages of each week’s edition.
We could stack up a long line of witnesses — including parents, students and most notably, our school trustees and administrators — who welcome the newspaper’s ability to shine the light on their educational efforts and would willingly testify to how essential it is to the business of raising the next generation of leaders.
There are other things, though, that some school boards would prefer the local newspaper not report, like low TAKS scores or high dropout rates, errant teachers or contentious school board meetings or principle-less principals or — heaven forbid — school trustees who flout open meetings laws and violate the public’s trust. But even most of them would admit — however grudgingly — that there’s no better way to stir up a hornet’s nest than to land on the wrong side of the local newspaper editor.
That is because this country’s community newspapers are the only media that report the important news of their hometowns — day in and day out, win, lose or draw, and even when hell occasionally freezes over.
Community newspaper reporters are the only reporters who attend darn near every meeting of the school board (or city council or county commissioners or hospital or water board) — or who notice when an agenda is not published or public matters are discussed behind closed doors or public officials talk out of both sides of their mouths... and who have the chutzpah to write about it.
Community newspaper reporters are the only reporters who stand on the sidelines of all those football games — even the occasional junior high or junior varsity game — and feel their toes numb as they compile stats and snap too many pictures in much too poor light of the winning touchdown or the losing dropped pass.
Community newspaper editors are often the only members of the public who are there to quote elected state and national officials when they show up for town hall meetings, or who will hold their feet to the fire editorially when some legislation they favor offends local sensibilities or common sense — and more often, both.
They are the burrs under the saddle that provoke discomfort when they call attention to the fact that the board room is only large enough to accommodate the school board and superintendent — and not the public that hires and fires them — as we have done. They are also often the champions of small rural schools when Governor Rick Perry blames superintendents for causing a $27 billion budget deficit that a sadder but wiser former State Comptroller once correctly warned would be the inevitable result of bad legislation backed by the very same Governor.
Community newspapers are often reluctant to sing their own praises, and rightly so. The camera should only rarely be turned inward, and then only when it merits the reader’s attention. This is one such case.
Public notice is too often viewed as the media’s cause. It probably is, but only because we are the ones the public — by its own default — has sent to do the job. They had better be damn glad someone is doing it.
In HB 400, carried by House Public Education Committee chair Rob Eissler, the Texas Association of School Boards and their member districts are trying to remove the mandate to post important public notices — of financial condition, performance, tax rate and budget adoption — in those very same community newspapers to which the public and school trustees and administrators so often turn for information and advocacy. They wish to post notice instead on their websites and at physical locations in the district.
They are undermining this state’s public notice laws under cover of the current budget crisis, claiming it is about saving money. It is not — nor is this their first effort to do so. Most school districts spend less than 1 percent of their annual budget on all public notices — not just these. And while that is a piddling amount of money to school districts, it is often the life blood of community newspapers like ours, which are called upon to do so much more for which they can never be compensated.
We urge the public, the school district, the teachers and parents and students and administrators and school board members: do not let public notice be removed from the community newspaper on which you rely and on whose vigilance and well-measured support you can always depend. Please make a phone call or write a letter in support of public notice in your community newspapers, and in opposition to HB 400.