Public scrutiny a valid, unwelcome part of job

By the Herald editorial staff

While most of us can sympathize with the desire to take care of unpleasant business in private, we're glad public officials don't have that luxury.

There is no such thing as a "private matter" when it comes to operating public institutions. That goes double for public schools, which are entrusted with our money and our children.

That's why the Richland School Board's recent reticence regarding the administration was so disconcerting.

Something mysterious was going on down in the superintendent's office, and the aura of secrecy lingers, making it tougher to resolve.

The best way to dismiss charges of subterfuge -- and kill most of the public's interest -- is to draw back the curtains. Nothing sounds quite as interesting as anything that appears to be whispered in hushed tones.

When Superintendent Jean Lane announced her retirement only a year after taking the job and just six weeks after former Superintendent Rich Semler was hired as a consultant, rumors started flying.

When School Board President Rick Jansons recently told Herald reporter Sara Schilling that district officials didn't feel internal communication matters should be worked out in public, well that made the whole story more intriguing.

When Jansons said the leadership team has "worked through challenges and is stronger and better because of them," it started to sound a lot juicier.

It didn't help when Lane declined to talk with Schilling, referring questions to the board instead. Regardless of the superintendent's motives, she appeared evasive.

For public agencies, playing potential controversies close to the vest isn't just an ineffective strategy for avoiding controversy, it also invariably runs counter to the central mission.

In this case, internal communication matters -- the board's expectations for the administration, differences in their visions and steps taken to promote unity -- are issues that are best worked out in public.

All organizations are prone to trouble within the ranks now and then -- most of it pretty mundane. But when the officials serve at the pleasure of the people, and the agency is funded by the taxpayers, people have a right to know what's going on.

E-mails obtained by the Tri-City Herald through the state's open public records act hint at tension between the superintendent and the board, and Jansons has acknowledged a "mismatch in expectations."

Whether the trouble is a personality difference, hurt feelings or some other kind of grievance, the best place to deal with it is in the open.

Jeri Morrow, president of the Richland Education Association, told the Herald that some lessons have been learned in the process.

"I think we're in a much better place than we were even a month ago as far as communication and openness about the situation. There's a greater understanding about the need for transparency," Morrow said.

Maybe, but there still seems to be some reluctance to engage the public fully in whatever issues divide the board and administration.

That perception, accurate or not, needs to be dispelled.