Thursday, April 7, 2005

Editorial: Barring the press

Published in the Current

The state Department of Education should reverse its practice of preventing the media from accompanying public officials on tours of public school buildings being built with public money.

That practice was invoked Wednesday to bar reporters from a tour of Scarborough High School’s renovation and construction site, though the quality of the work done on the project has been under public scrutiny in recent weeks, and was the subject of the tour.

The closing of the tour means the public has one more reason to fear that there are real problems with the construction quality at the high school, and that the schools are trying to cover them up.

Dale Douglas of the department told us Wednesday that the practice is meant to allow state employees – public servants – to speak freely to each other, and said the department is concerned that its employees’ comments might be misconstrued by the media.

But thousands of other public officials in our towns and elsewhere, from town councils to state legislators, conduct their business in front of the media on a regular basis, without complaint or concern. They make their comments openly and conduct frank discussions, including asking hard questions, and their comments are fairly and accurately reported in our paper and hundreds of other media outlets.

The Department of Education doesn’t want to play by the same rules. And Superintendent William Michaud took their side, likening the event to an executive session or an internal investigation.

Michaud forgets that an executive session can only happen when a majority of officials in an elective body vote – in public – to close the door, and only after saying why state law allows them to do so. And the timing of this “internal investigation” – if that is what it is – is unusual, coming as it does after a full public airing of concerns about the construction project, and after the public release of the schools’ extensive rebuttal to the concerns.

It would have been a big help to everyone involved if the public – in the form of the press, the public’s representative – had been allowed on the tour. If there are real problems, we would have seen them and reported on them. If there are not problems, we would have told you that. And if there is not a way to tell without deeper investigation, we would have explained that.

Now, the school board and school officials must consider whether they think the town should spend $20,000 on an outside engineer.

But they have barred one of the few ways to keep the council from conducting what some of them have said is an unneeded outside review.

It’s true that the state officials will issue a report in a week’s time, and that report will be made public. But given the scrutiny and skepticism the report is certain to face, it would have helped all involved – and most of all you, the public – if you had been able to see the process of researching the report. How complete was the state’s review of the construction work? We may never know, and we should.

Michaud should have argued with the state officials that, in light of the public nature of this situation, having the press on the tour would help the schools make their case that everything is “fine,” to use the word of Board of Education Chairman David Beneman.

Unless, of course, there are real problems with the school, or unless there’s no way to tell without being a professional engineer.

In those cases, having the press along would not help the schools. But in those cases, it’s time to spend the money on an outside expert.