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Sunlight for the School Board

June 03, 1998

The public has a right to be upset that the Los Angeles school board spends more time behind closed doors than in public debate, a fact documented in an analysis by Times staff writer Doug Smith. California elected officials are permitted to meet in closed sessions to discuss legal matters, personnel issues and a few other things, but these confidential discussions should be the exception rather than rule. Public business should be conducted in public.

Marathon closed sessions are a reflection of how the board operates. So are its run-on public meetings, often lasting until midnight. The board's discussions, private and public, should be shorter, more efficient and less repetitious.

Inordinately long meetings are a school board tradition driven at times by lax leadership, micro-managing by board members who spend hours on minor topics, uninformed newcomers and tardy veterans who demand full re-briefings. The hard and deep political divisions among current board members, and the unswerving allegiances some have to specific constituencies, including the unions, also promote undisciplined debate.

As City Atty. James Hahn contemplated an investigation, school board members showed that they could change. On Monday they emerged quickly from closed session and started the public meeting on schedule for the first time in recent memory. They also considered switching the public meeting to Tuesdays to allow board members more time to read the reams of material delivered as late as Friday evening by the district staff. Better-prepared board members, at least in theory, would need to ask fewer questions in closed session.

These are all welcome departures from business as usual. School board business should be conducted in the open, so the public can measure for itself whether schools and students are well served.

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