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THE TRIBUNE'S VIEW
Superintendentís salary
School board tries openness

Give members of the Columbia Board of Education credit for taking a step into the sunshine. They have decided to vote in an open meeting Monday to approve salary changes for Superintendent Phyllis Chase.

This might not seem like much compared with long-standing policies followed by other agencies. One hardly can imagine the Columbia City Council secretly ratifying salary changes for the city manager. The council even mentions job performance factors, a prospect that strikes terror into the hearts of school officials. In reacting to the decision to ratify her salary in public, Chase admonished board members to stick with past policy by not mentioning anything about her performance - presumably, lest a dangerous precedent be set, even anything positive.

Thus, Columbia board member Michelle Gadbois took a bold step by school standards when she urged her colleagues earlier to "err on the side of openness," and board President Karla DeSpain this week agreed. "In my opinion itís the right thing to do," she said. "I think we ought to try it." No doubt the president had to spend time reassuring the superintendent this radical move would not trigger an Armageddon.

That "trying" this simple act of non-threatening disclosure is such a hard decision and is an "error" on the side of openness shows how far the board had, and still has, to go.

To make progress on Open Meetings and Records Law compliance, local school boards must resist long-standing efforts by state officials to the contrary. The Missouri School Boardsí Association advises local boards not to set salaries in public, relying on semantic gymnastics for their rationale. They consider a salary change a "rehiring," which in its convoluted interpretation is exempt from disclosure under the state Sunshine Law.

You can see the poisonous culture of secrecy surrounding public school activities in Missouri, no doubt responsible in large part for the notorious failure of poorly performing districts. Only when they face legal sanctions does some semblance of full disclosure begin to illuminate their activities.

The single most effective tool for encouraging good performance by public officials is openness. Forcing public officials to operate in public is the entire thrust of the Sunshine Law. As such, it might fairly be deemed the most important law on the books. If governments work openly, the best possible outcomes are assured. Openness wonít turn incompetents into geniuses, but public oversight makes remedy more likely and constantly gives officials incentive to perform properly.

I predict that when Columbia school board members give openness a try, they will suffer no lasting injury. They might even come to realize how much better it is for them as well as their public and look for additional ways to enhance their credibility by staying out of the closet.


Henry J. Waters III, Publisher, Columbia Daily Tribune

Another element of good management is to be concise in your writing and talking, especially when giving instructions to others.


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