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Watching the school board is a group effort by journalists, citizens

Saturday, July 14, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:43 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Scott Swafford is the Public Life editor for the Columbia Missourian.

Correction: The original headline for this column incorrectly identified the government body.

Dear Readers,

Missourian reporters Kendra Lueckert and Jewels Phraner on Wednesday tried to meet one of journalism’s higher callings — holding your government accountable — with a story about school district officials’ decision on where to place Columbia’s third major high school. School board members in late June, acting on a recommendation from Superintendent Phyllis Chase, voted to approve a site east of Columbia at Rangeline and New Haven roads. It’s a farm half donated and half sold by former Boone County resident Turner Vemer. We asked Chase and school board members to justify the decision to put a high school there, given a number of inquiries from you, our readers, about why a site on the north side of Columbia wasn’t selected and why the public wasn’t allowed significant input. Their answers are now a matter of public record.

That story, we believe, achieved a lot. It required, then shared, public officials’ explanations for a decision that will do much to shape the future of development in the area southeast of present-day Columbia. Whether you agree with the selection is another matter. Now, at least, you know the rationale for it. And the Missourian in coming days will do more to examine and analyze the pros and cons of the site.

While Wednesday’s article was an accomplishment in and of itself, we found ourselves that morning pondering what we might have done better. Contrary to conventional wisdom, conscientious reporters can’t help but second-guess themselves when they write stories that include complaints from the public that they were excluded from conversations about matters that have so much potential to influence their lives.

Holding government accountable is certainly a lofty goal for journalists. But empowering the public to affect government decisions is an even more noble cause. The Missourian for months had recognized that a decision on a high school site was imminent. Had we also recognized sooner that school district patrons were not part of the process, we could have drawn them in by any number of means: focus groups, surveys, town hall meetings, online forums. These things all fall within the purview of today’s journalism. But we did none of them.

So, we did well with Wednesday’s story, but we could have done so much more. Part of the challenge in being a community newspaper is knowing when we can step in and help people engage.

With your help, that recognition will come more swiftly. We hope you’ll help us stay on the ball by alerting us when you feel your voice isn’t being heard. We thank you in advance for doing that.


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Comments

Doug Hunt July 22, 2007 | 8:57 p.m.

Scott,

I've been thinking about your observation that the Missourian "could have done so much more" to encourage public discussion before the school board arrived at a decision on siting the new high school. It's a good point, and it's refreshing to hear some journalistic breast-beating in an era when no one seems to want to admit they were wrong.

But there's this: Why stop the "focus groups, surveys, town hall meetings, on-line forums," etc., just because the school board says the fat lady has sung? Is it good journalism to watch a government body reach a quick decision behind closed doors, and then to drop active coverage? Doesn't this encourage political quietism?

Ground hasn't been broken on the new high school. If there is reason to think that the site is a bad one (and I believe there is) then I hope the Missourian will go ahead and launch those focus groups, etc. Perhaps there is still time for organized public opinion to force a reconsideration on the issue. And if there isn't, a post-mortem examination of a wooden-headed decision can still be valuable to a public that has to chose which bums to throw out in the next election cycle.

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