116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Members of the Cedar Rapids school board are abdicating their democratic duty to be responsive to the public.
For years, the school district’s policies and norms have limited public participation, and those shortfalls in the process were highlighted by the recent debate over police officers in schools. Officials repeatedly called it one of the biggest issues they have worked on, yet they did not adequately engage the public in their monthslong discussion.
Most constituents who emailed board members about school resource officers did not receive a response, according to public records reviewed by The Gazette’s Grace King. Board members declined to comment about their long-standing practice of declining to comment.
Erecting barriers between the people and the process unfortunately is business as usual for many local governing bodies in Iowa.
Most troubling is a board policy that states the board president “will set the tone of board meetings” and “speak on behalf of the board to the public.” The policy is simply incompatible with democratic governance. It is imperative to have a free flow of ideas between the governed and the governing.
This is not unique to Cedar Rapids. Several other school boards in Iowa have almost exactly the same language in their policies, including Iowa City and Linn-Mar. Erecting barriers between the people and the process unfortunately is business as usual for many local governing bodies in Iowa.
“The absence of responses from board members and the lack of discussion at board meetings could lead to the conclusion that decisions are being made before the board’s meetings,” Randy Evans, director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, told The Gazette.
During public meetings, the Cedar Rapids School Board’s process for gathering input is totally backward. Members of the public are allowed to speak for five minutes each at the beginning of each meeting but staff and elected officials usually decline to respond directly to them about their concerns.
Later in the meetings, when staff presents information and the board deliberates, the public becomes merely spectators. We lowly citizens are not invited to weigh in when the actual decision making takes places.
The school board last week voted to approve an amended contract governing its school resource officer partnership with the city. As usual, members of the public had no opportunity to respond to board members and administrators.
In a jarring display of the school district shielding itself from public oversight, administrators withheld the proposed contract until the day of the board meeting, days after the agenda had been published. These are changes they have been talking about for months, but the public didn’t get to see them until a few hours before the board unanimously voted to approve them.
This is the kind of anti-democratic shenanigans we expect from Washington, D.C., where politicians release lengthy bills hours before they’re supposed to be voted on. We expect better from our local governments.
Any elected official can simply refuse to entertain public input, governor however they want and let the voters sort it out in the next election. However, that is a grim view of the democratic process. The real work of representative government takes place between elections, when constituents engage with electeds in a collective decision-making process.
In Cedar Rapids, the citizens and the officials are talking at each other, not to each other.
One board member at the most recent meeting made a telling remark. First-term director David Tominsky said the school resource officer issue “feels like one of the most difficult decisions that’s been put in front of us.”
That seems to be how the school district is governed — issues are “put in front of” elected officials by unelected administrators. Cedar Rapids is left with a set of rubber stamps on the school board, not the leaders we need.
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