Today is Constitution Day...a day when Americans celebrate their rights and freedoms. A perfect day to launch my blog and to post an op-ed piece I wrote. It was published in the Morris County Daily Record on March 11, 2007.
03/11/07 - Posted from the Daily Record newsroom
School board members should 'mightily' speak out
BY MAUREEN CASTRIOTTA
It's that time of year again when candidates are running for seats on their local school boards. As in all elections, the school board race is democracy in action. It is a cacophony of opposing voices pontificating on the state of public education and their local schools. Voters elect those most convincing in their promise to hold the sacred office of school board in the name of the people and to remain accountable to them.
So have you ever wondered why, when the race is over, the votes are counted, and the oaths of office are taken, so many new board members quickly forget this very promise and instead, take a vow of silence and easily relinquish their voice to one board designee who perfunctorily communicates to the public a remarkable concordance of board opinion?
Well, as one of the lucky ones who crossed the finished line a winner in last year's school board race, I'd like to share my views on this perturbing and vexing phenomenon, but first a little disclaimer: Only the board president shall authorize or make statements of official board positions and since I'm not a board president, that leaves me out. And therefore, the opinions expressed here within are solely and unequivocally my own and I can just about guarantee they in no way, shape, or form represent the position or opinions of the Roxbury Board of Education or any other school board for that matter.
Okay, okay, that may not be the exact wording of the New Jersey School Board Association's recommended school board policy on public statements, but close enough. I don't think anyone would be surprised if I tell you this policy has come to be viewed by many school board members as the "gag rule." Why? Because school board members are given continuous and relentless warning that a school board's authority and power emanate from a unified body and its members, when not sitting in on a legally constituted meeting with other board members, are nothing but appendages who do not possess any more authority or powers than the average Joe citizen.
Therefore, and here's the kicker, one unauthorized word as a board member or a misspoken word made while you are wearing the cloak of plain citizen can result in a censure. No doubt about it, the message here is clear: this policy is for your own protection and the protection of a school board governing as a united front. So, just let the talking heads take the worry off your shoulders and stifle yourself.
Amazingly, this "gag rule" has managed to strike fear in the hearts of hundreds of school board members in New Jersey, while still others embrace it as a welcomed opportunity to hide behind a policy that liberates them from their duty to state opinions that would make them accountable to their constituents. In any event, the outcome is a deafening silence on the part of those who are supposed to be the voice of the public. Although some of you might consider it a blessing and are grateful that there's a policy in existence helping to eliminate the number of politicians filling the room with hot air, the upshot of this "gag rule" has not-so-funny ramifications on our school system as a representative governing body.
While it's the NJSBA's position that there is a need for a "one spokesperson only" policy to ensure the sanctity of the authoritative unity of the board and prevent it from being defiled by the varying opinions of individual board members, I believe this is just one more method being used by elite reformers of the educational establishment in a disturbingly intentional and consistent movement to take educational decision-making out of the hands of citizens.The "gag rule" plucks democracy right out of education by pushing school boards towards Tocqueville's vision of an American democracy dissolving into a "tyranny of the majority" where the minority rights are trampled on by the majority.
In effect, the "gag rule" is being used to enable school boards to compromise the fundamental right of the minority to speak out about the issues at hand and virtually eliminates discussion and debate without which there can be no transparency and accountability of our elected school board members or our schools. Not only is this not effective government, it's downright un-American!
The bottom line is, like any other elected official, school board members are the public's representatives. They have a duty to fulfill their oath of office and remain true to the democratic principles they promised to promote, which assuredly are not found in NJSBA's "gag rule."
Unquestionably, the time has come for all school board members to rise up against this policy by raising their voices loud ,clear, and mightily on behalf of the residents in their school community. Otherwise, the democracy in the public education we've so come to value and cherish will be a mere illusion.