Open up this meeting

Published 9:03 pm Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Having been unsuccessful in convincing the City Council to hold a joint meeting with the School Board to discuss the matter of replacing or renovating two of the city’s oldest and most dilapidated schools, members of the School Board have taken the further step of asking once again for a meeting — but this time between two representatives from each of the governing bodies and this time calling for it to be a meeting from which members of the public (and the press) would be excluded.

School Board members have fought the suggestion that they should replace Robertson and Southwestern Elementary schools with one new, combined school ever since the idea was broached. And they have dragged their heels when it came to selecting a location for that combined school, allowing the politics of the decision to derail the selection process.

Conversely, Suffolk’s City Council has allowed itself to bully the school system into a sort of frightened paralysis regarding the issue. Years have passed since School Board members first learned the two schools were in trouble, and still members have not been able to arrive at a realistic, apolitical conclusion about how many schools are needed to provide services to the children of Suffolk’s tiniest and most remote villages.

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During that same period, the economy has tanked, housing prices have fallen and tax collections have dropped. There is little question that two separate schools — the School Board’s first choice — are a pipe dream today, as the funding for them is not available. But what of the other options — construction of a single, central school, to serve both communities, for instance? Or reconstruction of one school, while the other gets renovations?

It’s likely that such questions are near the top of the School Board’s list for City Council. And it may well be that the proper place to get those questions answered is at a joint meeting between all or parts of those two bodies. What does not need to happen, though, is for that meeting to be held behind closed doors — away from the scrutiny of those who will be asked to pay for whatever deal comes out of such a meeting.

The site-selection process for these two schools has been fraught with the politics of two different city boroughs fighting over which community should get to host the new facility. Any suggestions that would come out of a closed meeting would be destined for second-guessing by members of both communities. What was so-and-so promised for his vote? Who helped change the mind of that representative? The conspiracy theories will fly, and in the end it’s likely that one community will feel shorted by the process.

Far better to hold this meeting in the open, where the public can hear the questions, the negotiations and the promises. That’s the best way to get the most people behind the decisions that follow.