Our opinion: Accountability? Really?

Today’s word for contemplation is “oxymoronic.”

ox-y-mo-ron, n. pl. ox-y-mo-ra or ox-y-mo-rons; adj. ox-y-mo-ron-ic.

A rhetorical figure in which incongruous or contradictory terms are combined, as in a deafening silence and a mournful optimist.

Here’s another example. School Board President Arthur Stewart was filling the public in on the results of a closed-door meeting held back in December in which the board deliberated the goals of the school district for the coming year.

“By adopting those goals, it is a way for the board to be accountable to its constituency”…”a sign of a healthy relationship between the board and community.” Mr. Stewart attempts to convince the public that closed-door meetings promote accountability, that closed really means open.

“There was such unanimity of thought,” Stewart crowed.

We’ll have to take his word for it, since neither the press nor the public was allowed to witness this phenomenon of spontaneous unanimous thought.

Of course, this is nothing new to the school board, which each year sequesters itself beyond the earshot of its constituency to essentially set not only goals, but in the goal-setting, create priorities. And, in the creation of priorities and goals, it fashions the foundation for policies.

But none of this visionary process undertaken in private violates the state’s Sunshine Act, we are told, despite the open meeting law’s definition of a meeting: “any prearranged gathering of an agency which is attended or participated in by a quorum held for the purpose of deliberating agency business or taking official action.”

For several years now, we’ve protested in these very pages of the Times Observer.

This year we didn’t.

Why?

We’re pretty confident the school district and its president are aware of how we feel about this retreat.

Just in case they are unclear, we feel it violates Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act.

Discussing goals, even if you don’t vote, is deliberating agency business. Goals are the basis of business, the underpinning of official action.

You can call it a retreat. You can call it an ice cream social. You can call it a quilting bee. But, when you have a quorum of your board’s membership in a room with administration leadership and you exit the room with a list of items representing consensus, at some point the membership had to have been polled or queried, unless of course, the president of the board possesses some clairvoyance that allows him to divine with certainty the unanimity of the outcome.

What can we do about it?

That’s where our frustration grows. The Sunshine Act is fairly toothless.

We can complain. We can whine.

Or, we could sue the Warren County School District for violating Pennsylvania Sunshine Act.

If we sue and win, violations are subject to a fine not exceeding $100 plus costs of prosecution, likely little more than was spent on victuals for the comfort and nourishment of those attending the meeting. Willful or wanton disregard of the law may result in an award of attorney fees and costs.

There are a couple of things to bear in mind.

1. The school board is made up of volunteers. They’re not paid or reimbursed for the pleasure of being on the school board. The nine people guiding our school district are donating their time.

2. Suing a local government entity that exists only on tax money, is like suing yourself. They only get money from one place, taxpayers. So any money spent on defending the lawsuit is coming out of our tax dollars.

And, in the end, what would it accomplish in a real sense? What’s done is done.

We applaud the notion that the school board sits down annually, assesses its current status and sets objectives for the future. We believe taxpayers should be offended, however, that this business is conducted behind closed doors.

And, we are appalled that the board president applied Orwellian “newspeak” to inform us that closed-door meetings provide accountability to a constituency and build a healthy relationship with those who will ultimately pay for whatever the secret meeting produces.

We’re here today to challenge the Warren County School District: Mr. Stewart, tear down these closed doors, and allow the public to participate in the direction of the Warren County School District.

The parents, the students, the teachers, and all of your constituents deserve to be part of the process.