Sandra Nichols, Committee for Good School Governance (CGSG) "Eyes Only" Endorsement Process Lacks Transparency, private candidate interviews, back room deal-making,

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Sept. 16, 2008

"Eyes Only" Endorsement Process Lacks Transparency

Sandra Nichols
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  "Also of concern is the appearance of 'back-room deal making,' which tends to undermine the democratic process. When public servants, or those who want to be, meet with special interest groups behind closed doors, promises may get made of which the public is unaware."

Candidates for PVUSD school board recently received a questionnaire, brochure, and letter inviting participation in the endorsement process for the Committee for Good School Governance. This group successfully elected all four of its endorsed candidates in 2006, unseating two of the board’s three life-long educators.

I decided to respond in public to the Committee so that the community as well as committee members understand why I choose not to participate in the Committee’s process.

During my eight years on the school board, I have been a staunch supporter of open governance and the public’s right to know what is happening in their schools. As part of my previous elections, I eagerly participated in the endorsement processes of many organizations.

Most civic-minded groups interested in school issues send questionnaires to candidates and follow-up with public forums—some televised—in which all candidates are questioned about issues that interest the members. Some forums, like those facilitated by the League of Women Voters, encourage questions from the public, although these are generally filtered through a moderator. To promote fairness, all candidates for a particular office are asked the same questions.

These public forums have an advantage over other methods, as they allow the public to attend and see, first hand, the candidates in action. At the conclusion of these forums, the public is actually able to meet the candidates and converse about topics not covered during the forum. In my experience, it is these public forums that help community members get to know the candidates and make informed voting decisions.

A few organizations, including the Committee for Good School Governance, interview all candidates separately—and in private—somewhat like a job interview. This process leaves the candidate wondering about fairness and adds a touch of mystery to the endorsement process. Candidates have no way of knowing how their opponents fielded the questions or conducted themselves. Some organizations already know whom they intend to endorse, and merely invite other candidates to give the appearance of a fair process. We’ve all experienced that kind of job interview.

Also of concern is the appearance of "back-room deal making," which tends to undermine the democratic process. When public servants, or those who want to be, meet with special interest groups behind closed doors, promises may get made of which the public is unaware.

As you might expect, most candidates seek the endorsement of groups that hold viewpoints and express values with which the candidates agree. Organizations seek similar compatibility with candidates they intend to endorse.

In non-partisan offices such as school boards, energetic, open-minded candidates do attempt to reach out to groups with a variety of values in an attempt to communicate with all voters and show their willingness to work with everybody on behalf of a cause, in this case, the public schools. It is the school board equivalent of "working both sides of the aisle," and explains why some candidates are endorsed by a very heterogeneous group of folks.

As a public servant, I welcome the scrutiny of my record and my vision of PVUSD's future. I have accepted—and will accept—every invitation to every public forum held to question candidates about school board issues. The public deserves and expects to hear from candidates seeking their vote.

But I will not participate in any organization's endorsement process that relies on private interviews in their selection process. Therefore, I shall not seek the endorsement of the Committee for Good School Governance.

However, I extend to all members of the Committee—as well members of the public—the invitation to contact me personally regarding any matter involving our public schools. If you have a concern, I will listen and take your concern just as seriously as if I had won your endorsement. After all, public schools belong to the people and the people have a right to know.

Sandra Nichols is a Speech and Language Specialist for Santa Cruz City Schools, a Trustee on the Pajaro Valley Unified School District Governing Board, and a Project Director for Santa Cruz County Office of Education. Her opinions are not necessarily those of any school district.

See Also:
Buy a school board, then tax the poor to balance the school district budget

© Sandra Nichols 2001 - 2008


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