Paper challenging district's stance

By Bill Marcum

Courier-Herald publisher

There's a disagreement brewing between your community newspaper and the Enumclaw School District, a mostly-behind-the-scenes difference of opinion that we now feel compelled to share with the public.

It's important to note, up front, that both sides believe they're right and are acting upon the best advice available. Hopefully, soon, the matter will be resolved.

If The Courier-Herald is correct in its challenge, you'll know. Likewise, if it's determined the school district has been correct all along, we'll share that information fully.

The dispute, in our view, is about access, openness and accountability to the public. To be blunt, we believe members of the Enumclaw School Board - as they wade through the process of selecting a new superintendent - are in violation of the state's Open Public Meetings Act.

The argument is simple, really. We believe discussions with candidates should be done in full public view. School board members - through their consultant, Dennis Ray - argue that candidates may not be as willing to talk if discussions are in front of a audience.

We've nave not supported this theory. We hold to the belief that the public's right to know extends to those discussions.

Here are some specific points of disagreement:

€ The district will meet Jan. 24 to narrow its list of candidates to six or eight. We believe that discussion should be open to the public; the district disagrees and intends to meet in executive session (closed to the public).

€ Following the meeting of the 24th, the district maintains it will not disclose the names of those still under consideration. We disagree. When the field is trimmed to the semifinalist stage, we believe the public should know who's in the mix.

€ Board members and a board-appointed advisory committee will meet in private to talk with those candidates. We believe those sessions, to stretch over the course of two days, should be open to public view. The district says no. It's important to note the district will make candidates available to the public during separate sessions.

€ The same situation exists when the committee winnows its list to two or three finalists. Discussions will take place behind closed doors. We believe the public should be allowed to observe - not participate, but observe.

€ The board has indicated it will host a private dinner for each finalist, again away from public view. Another violation, we say.

The Courier-Herald has been joined in its effort by The News Tribune, which recently went through a similar exercise with the Puyallup School District. That district appointed a committee to debate the merits of a book suggested as part of a high school curriculum. The district maintained those discussions should remain hidden from public view; the courts sided with the newspaper, supporting the public's right to know.

Our local disagreement currently involves the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association, the Washington Coalition for Open Government and, most important, the Office of the Attorney General. The matter has landed in the lap of Greg Overstreet, special assistant attorney general for government accountability.

In a recent e-mail to this newspaper and David Zeeck, senior vice president of news at the News Tribune, Overstreet indicated he will provide his opinion by Friday.

We'll keep you posted.

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