Thursday, January 25, 2007

Squelching your right to speak out. Coming to a school district near you?

The following editorial appeared in the Daily Southtown and was posted on the Students First website.

Editorial: Residents have a right to speak


Daily Southtown

The issue: West Harvey-Dixmoor school officials warn residents not to speak "harshly" about the school district and its employees.

We say: Considering the cloud the district is under over questionable spending practices, citizens have a right to speak up about district operations and demand answers.

A true sign that a public official does not have a handle on what democracy is all about is when that official tries to stifle free speech.

The president of the board of embattled West Harvey-Dixmoor School District 147 read a statement at a recent board meeting that indicated he and his cohorts did not want to hear any discouraging words about the job they and other district officials are doing.

"At this point, we would like to caution everyone not to speak harshly or inadvisably about the board of education or the administrators in the public," board president J.C. Smith said. "Remarks made that are unsubstantiated, inappropriate or slanderous will be dealt with, and you might have to substantiate your statement."

Residents within the district have spoken up in the past, but after Smith's statement at the meeting, only one person spoke -- and that was to gush praise on the board.

But if people wanted to speak "harshly" about District 147 these days, they certainly would be justified. Last summer, a state audit uncovered questionable spending of grant money within the district. And last month, Cook County investigators raided district offices and the home of Supt. Alex Boyd and confiscated financial documents. They also arrested Boyd and charged him with not having a firearm registration card after a gun was found in his house.

If you were a taxpayer in District 147, wouldn't you like to know what the heck was going on? Of course you would. And one of the ways to get information is to speak up at public meetings and request it. Yet, when citizens are met with intimidating statements like Smith's, they might be reluctant to speak up, lest they be "dealt with." That's not how democracy should work.

If Smith and his fellow board members don't want to be criticized by the constituents they are supposed to serve, maybe they could do a better job overseeing business being conducted by employees on the public payroll in the first place. For example, where were they when the district was spending $2.2 million in state grant money -- money that was supposed to be spent in the classrooms -- on such things as expensive meals, limousine rides, Lake Michigan cruises and "clown service"?

Folks, we're talking about a school district that is one of the poorer ones in the area. A total of 97 percent of the students are classified as low-income. But state grant money, according to the audit, went for such things as "a large alcohol bill," meals at the swank Ruth's Chris Steak House, candy, televisions, cameras and fruit snacks.

And what does the board know about why prosecutors thought it important enough to take district documents back to their office for close examination?

Time will tell if those documents lead to further action by prosecutors. As for the audit, Smith claims a hearing later this year will clear the district of any perception of misspending.

Until then, though, the district remains under a microscope, and the people who live there deserve answers and should not be denied their right to speak up. Keep that in mind, Mr. Smith.

Public officials long have tried to silence the public and the press -- including this paper -- when they have had the temerity to question how they operated. We always refuse to back down, and we urge the citizens of District 147 not to back down because it's your right to demand answers, and you'll never know what you'll learn.

There was one Southland superintendent who a few years ago did everything he could to thwart the press and the public from learning about his fiefdom. In the end, courage and persistence paid off. And if you want to hear more of the story, feel free to contact that superintendent. His name is Thomas Ryan. He ran the school district in Sauk Village. Nowadays you can reach him through the Illinois Department of Corrections.

Quote of the day.

"There is, in fact, only one solution: the state, the government, the laws must not in any way concern themselves with schooling or education. Public funds must not be used for such purposes. The rearing and instruction of youth must be left entirely to parents and to private associations and institutions." Ludwig von Mises

No comments: