April 13, 2007



Openness essential to building public trust

By Bill Plante

I was watching a local televised debate on a motion calling for an education budget override early this week and recalled a school committee meeting of more than a half century ago. I'm reasonably certain that concerns raised on this occasion have parallels in other communities because education budgets are the largest faced by cities and towns and taxpayers are increasingly concerned.
This week's discussion recalled an evening in 1951 where I had resumed journalism after ending my Army service. The Newburyport superintendent of schools was the late Rupert Nock who, together with his successor, Francis Bresnahan, modernized the system that is now in need of overhaul. Two schools bear their names by way of public approbation.

Nock told the committee that he was about to present a report resulting from a summer-long, door-to-door study of where families with preschool children lived, the better to understand where new schools should be built. But it was what he said prior to distributing the report that stuck with me and is relevant today.

If a rusting memory serves, it was along the lines of "I'm going to hand you this report, and explain it. The reporter will report on that, the newspaper will publish a story of probably a half column or so, and we will expect the public to understand what amounted to two months of work if we don't do more than we're doing tonight."

I never forgot that because he was right then and he would be right today. That's essentially true for all public bodies, but it is especially true when it comes to understanding information provided by school officials. Some resulting questions can be readily answered. Some cannot because of considerations relating to what has become one of the most complex of bureaucracies extending through all related areas. That stultifies meaningful public understanding. The consequence is distrust in the political arena of budget overrides, and that should be the compelling reality faced by all.

Budget stories do not compete well for reader time, and explanations often fail to answer all related questions. School budgets get more attention than other departments for obvious reasons, and when it comes to overrides, there will most likely be questions that might have been anticipated.

Public confidence depends on discomforting realities for committees caught in a bind between layers of demands from above and those from the needs they face. How to win public support for solutions to problems not all of local making rests chiefly with them.

That was what Rupert Nock understood and was able to meet with a half century ago in his role as prime mover, and so did the best of other publicly involved superintendents. Nock also had the benefit of a school committee as actively engaged as himself, and they established a record of service over decades.

That, admittedly was then, and this is now, but causes and effects are relevant to all ages. All citizens who serve on such committees are commited to the welfare of all. They should be appreciated for that. What they enter, however, is a unique service hugely dependant on public support. It is not only relevant locally, but subject to realities beyond its control.

Most committees hold public meetings that, because of the very nature of what they have to do, produce often deadly, televised broadcasts. Some do that as well as possible. Some do it with some reluctance, feeling they could do much better with less public exposure. That exposure, however is essential to credibility, nor can communication end there or with a superintendent's press release. Where educators are likely to fail is in not engaging in ongoing, public dialogue.

Rupert Nock had the luxury of relative independence from state and federal intrusions of the kind we have come to know and suffer from, but even then he understood the need for drawing a circle large enough to include as many as was possible, and that's a public relations reality for all seasons.



Bill Plante is former executive editor of Essex County Newspapers. His e-mail address is plantejr@highstream.net.


(This article replicated online with permission of the Newburyport Daily News, an Eagle Tribune Newspaper.)

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