Don't muzzle board

Boards of Education tend to be less political than their counterparts on the municipal side of government - the councils and boards of selectmen. Because state mandates and labor contract requirements dictate much of public education policy, school boards often operate within narrow margins. In many cases, discussions center on budgetary and procedural nuances, not wholesale differences in philosophy.

However, a proposal contained in a superintendent's letter to members of the Groton Board of Education takes this tendency to a troubling extreme.

In a Feb. 28 newsletter to board members, Superintendent Michael Graner, citing a discussion with Chairwoman Rita Volkmann, suggests it would be for the best if the board spoke with one voice.

"We both agreed that all requests from newspaper reporters should be referred to the board chair or to the superintendent. I know that in the past reporters have contacted board members and requested comments; that practice can result in real confusion," writes Dr. Graner.

It then suggests board members politely refer reporters' requests to the chair, Ms. Volkman.

By way of explanation, Dr. Graner said the suggestion grew out of a January retreat of school board members. They saw a need, he explained, to speak with one voice once policy is set.

As well meaning as the approach may be, it is wrong on many levels. Board members are elected by and accountable to the public. They have the right, and arguably the obligation, to state their opinions both during and after policy debates. Board policy should not keep them from speaking their minds.

Trying to avoid "real confusion" does not justify having one spokesperson, the chair, on a nine-member board. Give the public some credit. People can sort out different perspectives without becoming confused.

On the big decisions board members are asked to make, the one's that go outside the narrow lines - such as the hiring of a superintendent, the closing of schools, or the building of new ones - it is particularly important that these elected leaders feel free to share perspectives with the public,

The board should reject this needless policy.

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