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Public comment needs to be taken seriously by the school system [Editorial]

If the Harford County Board of Education is serious about the public setting the priorities for the county's public schools, it should be a little more willing to hear what the public has to say.

The school board has embarked lately on a course of holding public input sessions, which, on the face of it is a great way to get information from the public about what the school system's priorities should be.

Board member Robert Frisch went so far as to say at one such session on Monday: "It really does boil down to what the community wants ... It's only when you are heard that we truly understand what it is that you want."

At the meeting where Mr. Frisch said it boils down to what the community wants, school officials held a round-table discussion with a dozen people representing various groups and organizations from across the county.

So far, so good, but then we get to the crux of the problem:

Nearly as many people who were invited to participate in the discussion sat in the room and listened to the exchange, but were given no opportunity to offer their opinions.

The problem isn't that the school system is seeking out comments from leaders of civic and business organizations. Hearing from such leaders should be part of the process. The problem is that the general public is given second tier access to the process.

The process the school system has been using ostensibly to put together a consensus public vision for local public schools has an air of familiarity to a lot of people employed by corporate America during the late 1990s. The sessions set up by the school system have the look of focus groups.

The theory behind focus groups is that they could be chosen at random to serve as representatives of society at large and give opinions about things like whether people prefer their soda more sweet or sour, or whether most people like chocolate or vanilla filling in their cookies.

Though still in use, focus groups have fallen from favor to some degree because of a few flaws, not the least of which is that skillful focus group handlers can elicit whatever responses they want out of a particular group. It's kind of like when a prosecutor's office is presenting evidence to a grand jury to determine whether a suspect should be indicted. The courthouse quip is that grand juries are like mushrooms: they're kept in the dark and fed manure.

This is not to say that focus groups, grand juries or even the public input sessions the school system is having are fatally flawed. Like all human contrivances, however, they are flawed. If the flaws are taken into account, the information derived will be useful. If the flaws are exploited, the result is pre-determined.

The school system does itself and the general public a service when it seeks out civic leaders for their opinions on the vision for the school system, but it probably does just as much harm to itself when it fails to make provision for other interested people to be heard at such information sessions.

Sure, opening the floor to questions and comments can add to the length of a meeting. Importantly, the general public may well have a perspective that hasn't been raised. Even if the floor is open to questions and comments during sessions billed as being for information gathering and no one other than those invited ends up speaking, at least the opportunity was provided.

When no provision is made to allow for public comment, the message conveyed to the public is exactly the opposite of the one Mr. Frisch expressed.

If the school system wants to be taken seriously on the subject of building a vision for the school system that is in line with the vision held by the general public, it needs to take seriously what the public has to say.

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