It was a dark and stormy night in Meridian.
The Meridian Public School District conducted a “Public Meeting” Thursday night at Meridian Public High School as part of its series of Community Stakeholder Meetings to address its recent F rating from the Mississippi Department of Education.
About 30 members of the public attended.
Perhaps you are interested in the school district’s performance and how it plans to improve its performance, too, but you were unable to attend because of the night’s inclement weather, child-care responsibilities, an evening work shift or any number of good reasons.
Your inability to attend is understandable. That is one of the reasons journalists attend such meetings for you, to help keep you informed about our public school districts, our government bodies and the actions taken by public servants.
Unfortunately, our effectiveness in working in your behalf was limited Thursday night.
Upon arrival at the public meeting, the public school district’s superintendent and public information officer informed reporters that they would not be allowed to record either audio or video of the public meeting, nor would they be allowed to make written notes during the public meeting.
Video and photos of backs of heads from the rear of the auditorium were allowed as were interviews before or after the public event.
The public school district’s superintendent and public information officer stated a desire to make attendees feel comfortable with the process as the reasons for the restrictions.
The denial of recordings and note taking, however, was inconsistent. The consulting firm hired with public dollars by the public school district, Impact Education Group, was allowed to record the public meeting.
We understand our public educators’ tendency toward control, which likely becomes a matter of habit and necessity when directing 13 schools with more than 5,400 students.
Democracy can be messy and uncomfortable, however, and participation of an informed public is vital to make it work.
An understanding of that concept apparently is lost on some public servants in this community, who frequently have demonstrated a pattern of making decisions behind closed doors and out of public view.
To her credit, the superintendent immediately responded to the district’s poor performance – an overall F rating and four failing schools – when this year’s state assessments were tentatively and then finally released to the public.
The district’s strategic plan for 2017-2020 outlines a number of objectives, goals and actions the district will take to address its problems. Many of them already underway.
Additionally, 10 meetings were scheduled for “community stakeholders.” In fact, involving the public is one of the district’s stated strategies.
Our criticism of the district stems from the cloak it placed around those meetings.
Journalists, working for you, the public, were denied all access to meetings scheduled Oct. 11 for students, district leaders, teachers and staff, and Oct. 16 for faith-based leaders, community leaders, government leaders and parents. We believe we should have been allowed at all of those meetings as a public representative, but especially those involving government and community leaders.
We reluctantly yielded to those blocked doors despite our belief of your right to be represented at those meetings, especially one that included government leaders.
We find it unacceptable, however, to be denied use of standard reporting tools such as pens, paper and recording devices. Journalists’ accuracy is sometimes questioned. These are tools we use to ensure accuracy and should be expected and accepted at a public meeting.
Further, people attending a public meeting should anticipate their attendance and comments being public. More, we live in a time when everything is recorded, from police-citizen encounters to visits to grocery stores.
The Meridian Public School District has scheduled its next “public meeting” at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Meridian Public High School auditorium. We hope you will attend. We will, with reporting tools in hand.
We salute The Meridian Public School District for its strategy of public involvement. We know no one holds all the responsibility or answers for district’s struggles.
We encourage the district to embrace its strategy. Rather than timidly standing on the curb waiting for fair weather, rush into that dark and stormy night.