Members of the Utah State Board of Education are in charge of the state’s public schools. That means that everything they do is in the name of — and paid for by — the public.
So it ought to go without saying that darn near everything board members do in their official capacity should be public.
Sadly, someone had to say it. Happily, it was a member of the board, relative newcomer Terryl Warner of Hyrum, who spoke up the other day, calling out Board Chairman David Crandall and other members of that body for what certainly appears to be a pattern of improperly secret meetings and decisions.
The formal investigation Warner is calling for may be premature. The flaws and failures of board procedure in recent weeks can most likely be corrected by some extra efforts at keeping board actions public. And some remedial lessons in Utah’s Open and Public Meetings Act.
Her concern, though, is well-placed.
Warner clearly should not be the only person dismayed by the fact that the top two officials of the State Office of Education — Superintendent Martell Menlove and Deputy Superintendent Brenda Hales — have elected to move up their scheduled retirements by several months.
There has been virtually no public explanation for those moves. But public suspicion cannot help but be heightened by the fact that board members excluded not only the public, but also Menlove, from some recent meetings. And that just as Menlove’s accelerated departure was announced, the board — after discussing the matter in secret — quickly named as interim boss someone whose background is not in public education but as a seminary teacher for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and as a charter school founder.
Interim Superintendent Joel Coleman has been head of the State Schools for the Deaf and Blind, and some credit him with doing a good job of handling difficult issues there.
Still, Utahns who value and have done much to protect their system of public education — including the referendum that killed the Legislature’s spectacularly unwise and unpopular private school voucher plan in 2007 — have reason to be concerned.
Unless and until state board members get their act together and remember who they work for, the public has every reason to worry that members are cooking up some scheme that would boost charter and religious education at the expense of the public schools that the vast majority of families — as well as the Utah economy — will continue to depend on.
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