When the Natrona County School District first revealed they might close four schools, they waited until late on a Friday afternoon to make the announcement. That meant parents, students and staff went into the weekend with little information about the situation.
Then the school board voted to close the schools without holding a community forum or public hearing where a proper community discussion could take place. Instead, the public was limited to making comments at regular meetings, which did not allow for a conversation as much as a monologue.
Both decisions limited debate and discussion. And both decisions allowed rumors and skepticism to take hold in our community. The board waited until four months after making a decision to finally hold a public hearing – and that was simply to comply with state rules rather than out of desire for transparency.
It’s ironic, but not surprising, that at the public hearing, the seeds of that decision to limit conversation finally sprouted into out-and-out accusations of misdoing. Because in the absence of complete information, people will often assume the worst.
In this case, Mills Mayor Seth Coleman said a board member sent him an email offering to give Mountain View Elementary priority if the district should reopen any schools in exchange for the town of Mills purchasing district property. The mayor called the offer a bribe. The board member, Kevin Christopherson, acknowledged sending the email, but denied it was a bribe.
Coleman’s accusations come shortly after Mills sued the district over the closure of Mountain View Elementary – the town’s lone school.
We can’t help but wonder whether district officials would have found themselves in a very different situation if they had allowed for a robust community conversation on school closures before making any decisions. Perhaps if they had allowed a dialogue, the concerns of Mills residents would have been addressed before they materialized in a lawsuit. Perhaps the accusations of bribery wouldn’t have been made if that exchange had occurred in public, rather than in an email.
Two things should happen now. The Mills mayor has made a serious accusation, and one that Christopherson has denied. A state agency should step in to decide the truth of the matter and then report its findings to the public to eliminate further rumors and mistrust.
The district now says it is working to implement a framework that would allow officials to provide more information to the public. They say they’re aiming to become more transparent.
If they do, we predict the district won’t find itself facing similar problems in the future. If they strive to operate in the light, the community they serve may see them in a new one.