A Missourian reporter caught Phyllis Chase after Tuesday night’s meeting of the committee that will evaluate sites for the new high school. Dr. Chase summed up the session: “Lots of great information was shared, and that’s a good thing.”
As I sat in the small but attentive crowd in the West Junior High cafeteria, I felt the same way — with one difference. I couldn’t help thinking that the good thing would have been even better if this meeting had happened back in the spring rather than now in the fall.
The reason it didn’t is clear. In fact, Dr. Chase told the Missourian at one point that she didn’t believe in public involvement in the site selection process. She and the School Board certainly acted on that belief during the months in which a site was secretly chosen and suddenly approved. It was only after the selection of the Vemer site was announced, and the public began to speak, that she and the board reversed course and belatedly set up what looks to be a thoughtful, open process.
It may seem self-serving for a former Missourian editor to say it, but I must suggest that the unceasing efforts of the current Missourian staff have played an important role in opening up a decision-making process that never should have been closed. Reporters kept asking questions, requesting records (including e-mail exchanges) and then publishing and posting online the results. Citizens at large gained essential information that otherwise would have been either unknown or, at best, available only to activists.
Secrecy in the conduct of public business is a bad thing, not only because it’s undemocratic, but because — as in this case — it so often leads to wrong results.
I don’t claim to know which of the six possible sites is best for the high school that is scheduled to open in the fall of 2010. Nor does the committee. After Tuesday night, though, it was pretty clear to me that the first choice probably isn’t the best choice. That’s a shame, in a way. For one thing, the controversy may obscure the generosity of the Vemer family in donating half the 80 acres. Alone among those offering sites, the Vemers stand to gain no pecuniary benefit other than the $500,000 purchase price for the other half.
But a look at the map tells us that the site is closer to Callaway County than it is to the population center of the Columbia school district. The engineer’s report, published a couple of weeks ago in the Missourian, shows that it lacks most of the necessary and expensive infrastructure. Another report Tuesday night suggested that the students are more likely to be in the north of the district than the southeast.
The evaluation committee, an impressive bunch with varied backgrounds and interests, has its work cut out. It also now has a short time to do that work if the board is to make another, wiser pick in November.
The good news is that this time the choice and the process leading to it will be out in the open where the public’s business belongs. Better late than never.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.