Most important events do not happen in a vacuum, that is, they are rarely the result of some single, random activity. Almost always, there is a trail behind the event, sometimes long, sometimes short, but always supporting the event in question.
Readers of this blog and my past Daily Pilot columns know that one of my recurring and greatest criticisms of the school board is their code of silence – my name for it – which manifests itself in a lack of commentary in the local newspapers, avoidance of bad news on the district website, and the disturbing, disrespectful silence when the public is speaking at board meetings.
According to my online search of the Daily Pilot archives, the last time a sitting board member penned a commentary was in February, 2011 – about 3.5 years ago. That’s a long time to keep taxpayers out of the loop.
Last week, however, that silence was broken when school board president Karen Yelsey chose to write a rebuttal to my column questioning the $32 per person charge for a speech by the superintendent. I wrote that there should be an option to hear it for free.
Yelsey wrote – surprise! – that they had planned all along to offer the speech on the district’s website! Yay! Turns out, they just forgot to let everyone know. (There was no mention of this on the website section describing the speech and there was no mention of it in the invitation I received in the mail.)
An honest mistake. But it would be nice to let everyone know now, yes? As of today, however, there is still nothing on the website informing people who don’t have $32 for breakfast that they will be able to watch it for free.
Yelsey went on to question board member Foley’s request for an audit of the district’s legal fees to determine whether there are taxpayer dollars to be saved. One would think that with the district having to dip into its reserves to make ends meet that this idea would be welcomed. Instead, Foley got the silent treatment. So, I picked up the ball, and in a disappointing response, Yelsey wrote:
“In this instance, it is important to correct either a misquote or misinformation he has attributed to Trustee Katrina Foley, who Smith says put our district legal fees at $2 million per year.
“In reality, our legal fees have averaged $690,000 per year over the last five years. While these fees are higher than we would like, the reality is that almost 60% of this yearly amount is spent on special-education litigation, which is the bane of districts throughout the country. Furthermore, in an attempt to continuously lower our legal fees, our special-education department has cut the average by 43% over the past four years.”
But Houston, we have a problem: I did not write that legal fees were $2 million a year. Here’s what I wrote: “In her personal comments, board member Katrina Foley, an attorney, broached the subject of a review of the district’s legal fees, claiming that there is money to be saved. How much money? Foley’s answer: $2 million.”
Worse, Yelsey does not seem to be able to grasp that the total amount of the legal fees is not the issue. The issue is the number of billable attorney hours being spent on the various legal matters and the amount billed per hour. Find a firm that is both more efficient and which charges less and – voila! – legal fees are reduced.
But wait, there’s more! The column to which Yelsey was responding was another in a long line of school board columns penned over the last decade, at least. Yet, this time, Yelsey chose to attribute my motive to my campaign for a seat on the school board in Area 1.
Yelsey wrote, “While Smith is grasping at issues in an attempt to degrade the current school board and justify his entry into the upcoming school board election…”
Unfortunately, many people who read that line will not see through Yelsey’s attempt at misdirection; to place the blame for a $32 breakfast and potential legal savings on my shoulders because I am a candidate (and you know how those candidates are) instead of where it really belongs. (Yelsey is the current school board president.)
So, why now? Why did Yelsey break the code of silence after over three years and single out this one column after I have written so many others? Why now? Let’s connect the dots.
Of course, I can only guess, but it could very well be that she sees your support of my candidacy as a threat to the status quo, even though I am only one vote out of seven. So, why Steve Smith and why now? Perhaps because I am fulfilling a campaign promise to increase accountability and it is a little scary.
Or perhaps I remind her of another “reform” school board candidate from 2006. The Daily Pilot profile of that candidate included, “Her first mailer, which went out in early October, promoted her ‘new voice, new ideas, new leadership’ and argued that the school board needed to be more than a ‘rubber stamp’ for the administration.”
The candidate was Karen Yelsey.