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School board lacks transparency

There is a connection between transparency and trust when it comes to public officials. In the case of the Prince Edward School Board, I have been having my own debate with them over this very issue.

I have spoken up during the comment session of two school board meetings and emailed the members individually about their lack of transparency in their voting method. The Code of Virginia says, in § 2.2-3710, that “no public body shall vote by secret or written ballot, and unless expressly provided by this chapter, no public body shall vote by telephone or other electronic communication means.”

Not only is their practice of voting on their networked computer system not transparent because the citizens attending the meeting cannot observe the members’ votes, but it is expressly forbidden in the Code of Virginia. Even if they announce the results of the vote afterward, the actual vote is a secret ballot. We have to trust that the result announced by the clerk is the true result, since we have no way to verify it.

You will notice that the Code of Virginia not only forbids secret ballots, it forbids voting by the use of “electronic communication means.”  The school board has defiantly refused to comply with the law even when the Freedom of Information Act Advisory Council opinion requested by me clarified that voting on computers without the use of visual projection is a secret ballot.

In Virginia, the open meetings laws are meant to foster trust of public officials by their transparency. Mistrust results from a lack of transparency. The school board’s position makes the citizens feel they must be hiding something or that they think the citizens shouldn’t be involved.

There is a second area of total disregard of the law by the school board that illustrates this same contempt for the citizen. A new law in Virginia requires all school boards to provide the school budget “in line item form” (effective July 1) on their webpages and in print, upon request from the school board office. It is quite a challenge to find the budget on our school board’s webpage!  The reader should make the attempt for himself. When you finally locate the budget, three levels deep on the webpage, it constitutes about 1 ½ pages of generalized categories, not “in line-item form.” Here again, the lack of transparency and disregard for the law leaves the citizens wondering what the school board is hiding.

Lack of trust is the inevitable consequence of the lack of transparency. The administration of Prince Edward Public Schools should be eager to work with the citizens to improve the schools because the parents and members of the community have rich resources to offer. Their secrecy and outright defiance of the laws antagonize the citizens and foster distrust instead of partnership.

I remain hopeful that the Prince Edward School Board members will familiarize themselves with the open meetings laws of Virginia and have a change in their interactions with the public so that trust can be restored and they will practice transparency in the future.

CINDY KOETHER is a retired mathematics professor at Hampden-Sydney College. She is the mother of three children and grandmother of six. She is active in several community organizations in Prince Edward. Her email address is ckoether@hsc.edu.