The Frederick County Board of Education is perfectly within state law to close an appeal hearing next month on whether a controversial social studies textbook should be removed from the curriculum earlier than recommended because it supposedly promotes liberal viewpoints. It is also perfectly opaque and unnecessary.
In a yearlong dispute, a group of parents led by Cindy Rose of Knoxville has been trying to get ďSocial Studies Alive! Our Community and Beyond,Ē which has been used since 2004, purged from among the 15 to 20 printed and online resources used in the third grade. They claim the book tends to lean to the left on health care, public education and government.
A county task force agreed with them in September, recommending that the school system begin searching for a textbook replacement now. But schools Superintendent Theresa Alban, concerned about budget constraints, curriculum changes and a possible move to electronic textbooks on the horizon, decided to continue using the book until the 2014-15 school year.
The parents have appealed that decision, questioning the timeline and the fact the school board has already decided to take up the appeal in private, with the parents submitting documents making their case, and the school adminstration doing the same.
The state Open Meetings Law allows the board to close the appeal hearing because it is acting in a quasi-judicial manner by ruling on the appeal. It has also been suggested that the appeal involves a personnel matter, namely a review of the superintendentís decision — although that is a legal leap of the imagination.
More importantly, however, the law also allows the board to open the hearing if it wishes.
Regardless of whether the book is slanted politically one way or the other — and who knows, maybe next time the complaint will be that a textbook is a thinly-veiled right-wing rant — why not debate the matter in the light of day instead of behind closed doors? As the parents point out, up to now, everything concerning the textbook complaint has been public, and there is no legitimate reason why it shouldnít continue to be so.
Following the letter of the state open meetings law is only part of the statuteís intention; the other part concerns the spirit of that law — a spirit that urges public officials to open their deliberations, to err on the side of the publicís right to know whenever possible. It is called the democratic process.
School Board President Angie Fish has said the board, in voting to close the hearing, was merely following procedure. Most previous appeal discussions before the board have been conducted in private, apparently in part to allow it to avoid audience distraction. A transcript of the hearing will be kept and released to the appellants afterward, who can then appeal to the Maryland Board of Education if the superintendentís decision is affirmed by the local board.
But that is a comfortable position that seems to give support to an underlying suspicion harbored by many frustrated parents that school officials sometimes donít want to be pestered because they tend to think they know better than taxpayers on how to run their school system. In this case, the board has decided to err on the side of its right to keep the public in the dark about his deliberations.
For their part, the parents havenít given up trying to convince the board to reconsider and open the hearing. They are reportedly inviting members of the public to stand outside of the school systemís central office on Aug. 6 when the board is scheduled to hold the hearing. It would be a hopeful sign if a large crowd gathers, but most parents have to work for a living.
However, parents should remember that school board members are elected in this county. Often, during election campaigns, lip service is paid to transparency, as candidates promise to make the school system more accessible to parents and more accountable to taxpayers. In practice, though, such promises sometimes seem to be conveniently forgotten. Perhaps, voters will give them a social studies lesson next time.