Chesterfield School Board tramples First Amendment

It always rattles me when I figure out that we have missed an important story. The most recent, the vote in June by the Chesterfield County School Board approving a handbook for school board members, which states that any media contact with school board members must be vetted by the school system’s community relations office.

We in the media already have to decipher ambiguous school board agendas and the gatekeeper mentality of the community relations office. The Village News has always had a good relationship with school board members who represent southern Chesterfield, and they have never seemed to be bothered by questions from us. In fact Marshall Trammell of the Bermuda District, actually gives us a call when he wants to discuss a particular issue, such as the closing of the Chester Middle School and giving us a primer on functional capacity versus building capacity. The Dale district’s David Wyman has always returned calls and has been open about any question asked him, and Mataoca’s Omarh Rajah encouraged us to call him at any time.

This new policy is the most egregious attempt I’ve seen as the school system runs from the tenets of the First Amendment of the Constitution.

School board members are supposed to represent the public, be free from partisan politics and always look after what’s best for the education of the students of this county. Without open access to our elected officials, what we have is closer to an oligarchy than a democracy, not being responsible for their actions because their gatekeepers (the community relations department who’s is already lethargic, protective and anxious in their response to questions posed by this media outlet) protect them from, or help them spin, their response to the public.

School board members already seek the approval of the dominating ruling party in Chesterfield when running for office, now they will have to seek the approval of the Superintendent through his community relations department as well. Who’s actually making decisions about your child in school, your elected official or a bureaucrat behind a computer waiting for his next day off?

On page 32 of the Chesterfield County School Board handbook, item number 16 says, “All media inquiries should be first directed to Community Relations for a full discussion of background material, in order to insure that everyone has the most updated information.”
Many times parents look to the media for answers to concerns that they have. Some don’t feel comfortable calling their school board representative and don’t know the appropriate person to contact to solve their problem. Some perceive, whether true or not, that retribution could affect their child if they call administration. Many times the newspaper or television reporter are the only ones to get to the bottom of their issue.

But even those who have a serious issue and are concerned enough to call their school board representative, will now be shuffled off to a staff member who will quote some rule or regulation to shift the parent’s attention elsewhere until the parent gives up – unsatisfied and POed.

The handbook relates what a school board member should do if contacted by a parent or any other person with concerns as well.

“A parent’s concerns often involve the parent’s child and a citizen’s concern could be anything from where buses are parked to reasons for a flag flying at half-mast. If approached by a community member, School Board members are encouraged to seek general information from the parent or other members of the community to clarify the concern. However, School Board members should not involve themselves directly in the issue(s) nor intervene with staff on the parent’s behalf. Rather, board members should seek to connect community members with school or division staff who can assist with the parent’s specific issue(s)... Because they are they (sic) people most involved in a student’s school life and in the ‘innerworkings’ of division operations, staff members are best able to solve problems and answer questions. If problems cannot be resolved at the school or district operational level, parents and others may be referred to [school administrators.]”

The door has been closed on open government. I can even call a state delegate or even a congressman and many times get a direct response, but I can’t call a school board member for a quote on an issue?

I wonder who wrote this school board handbook. I assume it was the staff or the community relations department who put the media section together. In the end, it’s all about power. It’s all about propaganda and manipulation of the information. Does this remind you of something; maybe Germany in the 1930s or some passage out of 1984?

I repeat, this is the most egregious action I have seen come out of this board since my first child entered Chesterfield’s school system 23 year ago. Yeah, we missed the story when the board approved the handbook on June 28, but thanks to the investigative reporting of Zack Reid with the Richmond Times-Dispatch (top of Metro secton Sunday, Aug. 31) the public may have never known. Come on, we, and I mean this board’s constituents, want this unjust handbook revised at the next meeting and maybe those who pushed this deplorable nonsense should be chastised or more.
mfausz@villagepublishing.com | 751-0421

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