By Alex Saitta
January 24, 2016
Democracy In Action:
Along with the district administration, school board members are tasked with investigating and identifying the challenges facing the education of children in this county. Once identified, working with the administration board members are to come up with solutions and put theirs ideas and plans forward in public.
The board members discuss these various ideas and plans at board meetings, in newspaper articles, by writing letters to the editor and on social media.
In turn, the public learns about the issue and becomes educated on the facts and the various points of view. The public then begins to weigh in, speaking at meetings, calling and emailing board members and writing on social media. Alternatives are put forward by the public. The board members take this in, and their positions, ideas and plans are reshaped and modified based on this public input.
There is more debate by the school board, and finally votes are taken and a plan is passed.
This is how a democracy (ďdemosĒ ó from the people or the masses) is supposed to function. Final solutions are a product of the administration, the board and the people.
Perfection Not Achievable:
Like all elected bodies, our school board is diverse and made up of men, women, educators, businessmen, those who support the administration 100% and those who are more independent minded, those from liberal Clemson and those from conservative Pickens. If all are doing their job and putting forth their opinion and they do it publicly as they are required to, there will be public disagreement.
Solicit public input and participation in formulating a final solution, and emotions will run high, passion will be turned up and sometimes it will get personal. The media tends to high-light that all ó it sells. As long as the body and public reaches solutions on the issues it faces, the democracy is functioning like it is designed. It is like making sausage. A functioning and healthy democratic process doesnít look pretty, but it works in the end.
For example, you may remember in late 2013 some of the board members wanted to sell the old Gettys Middle School to the only bidder ($250,000) at the time just to take the old and costly buildings off the books of the school district. The others didnít want to sell it because that only bidder was a charter school and that would have hurt the enrollment of the school district. After a few meetings and press accounts, the public weighed in for and against and a second buyer came forward. He wasnít a charter school, and in the end paid $300,000 for the building less 4 acres (the bus depot and bus loop). The 8 month process wasnít pretty at times, but it worked out better for the school district and was a product of the democratic process.
Perfection is not achievable in anything. While Jim Thorpe is recognized as the greatest physical being, he wasnít perfect. There was no value in his poop and it smelled no better than anyone elseís.
Some say there is too much disagreement in reaching solutions. The conflict needs to end, they say. You hear this from Washington DC down to local bodies. OK, letís pass a law that says everyone has to agree with President Obama or Governor Haley or XYZ board member. To end the disagreement, that sometimes turns into conflict, you have to snuff out all opposing views. Autocracy (government of one ruler or point of view) ends disagreement and conflict, true, but it creates an entire set of other problems.
Then theyíll say, we can have the disagreement/ debate/ conflict, but letís not do it publicly. So they try to take the decision making process underground, snuffing out public debate and thereby the people and the press. Iíve lost count the ways administrations and school boards of the past have tried to do this. Decisions were made executive session or over the phone between meetings, board member comments at the end of the meeting were eliminated, one or two board members were invited to meetings with the administration to get around FOIA requirements, information was withheld from the press, board committees were disbanded to limit public disagreement and information flow, policies were proposed and even some passed that limited speech, etc. There are too public officials who are seeking to act privately.
When I first started going to school board meetings in 2002 and 2003, plans would be proposed and passed. There was no debate among board members and little to no public input. It looked to me like all the decisions were made before the meetings, and plans were just decreed to the public at board meetings.
All these things short circuit the democratic process I described above.
To insure a healthy democratic process the public body and public groups must follow three basic principles. One, the public body must value a democratic process of the body and the public coming together on final solutions. That is, the body must value discussing, debating and acting in public. Two, the body and public groups do all they can to inform the public on the issues within a fair and open forum. Three, the body encourages public input at meetings, in the newspaper or social media.
I admire groups like the Concerned Citizens of Pickens County (CCPC) for getting involved in the democratic process using Facebook and such. There they cite figures, make statements about public officials and weave narratives. However, CCPC doesnít allow others to respond who disagree with their figures or point of view. As a result, the public isnít fully informed and this short-circuits our local democracy.
I have a website and a Facebook page, both which I use to communicate with the public. I give facts and figures, put forth my point of view and invite others to do the same.
While most have websites and Facebook pages too, I donít think Iím the typical elected official. Think about it, how does the typical elected official function? Well, every four years they seek out the press, tell the public what they think and they call you. Once they have your vote though and are elected, most disappear and you donít hear from them until they need you again. Can you name who is on your local city council? If so, can you explain what XYZ councilman stands for? These people are supposedly working for you. Do you want an employee who gets the job and then disappears for years or he gets the job and keeps you in the loop about what is going on and what he is doing?
Again, most elected officials only want to communicate with you when they want something ó your vote. I never liked that so when I was elected, I vowed to be a public official who acts publicly, solicits input and lets his bosses know what he is doing during all four years.