Thursday, March 4, 2010

My School Board Heroes: Greg Wright & Kelly Bentley

It was the work of two school board members, Washington Township's Greg Wright and IPS's Kelly Bentley who inspired me to run for Pike Township School Board. Should I prove successful in the election, I would hope represent my constituents as well as Wright and Bentley did. Unfortunately I'm using the past tense as Wright and Bentley are both stepping down from their respective boards this year.
Wright and Bentley squared off against school administrators who were used to doing things behind closed doors and having the elected school board rubber stamp the decision. Both Wright and Bentley refused to be rubber stamps. They asked tough questions and expected the administration to be forthcoming with information when they requested. Very often Bentley found Superintendent Eugene White was withholding critical information while asking for Board approval. For example, White asked the Board to approve his budget although details of the spending was missing. Bentley refused to give White her vote without the information. She did her job, stood up for her constituents. Unfortunately the rest of the IPS Board is not cut out of Bentley's cloth.

Wright recently squared off with Superintendent James Mervilde and other Washington Township officials over the school district's contract with Securatex. It seems that contract was never properly approved and security services had never been let out for bid. The school district has paid out millions to the politically-connected security firm. Wright, with the assistance of blogger Diana Vice and members of the media, asked tough questions about the contract and asked for information. Recently Wright asked for an investigation of the contract.
How did the administration respond to the exposure of the illegal contract? By asking that school board members sign a "Compact" in which members would have to submit requests for public documents to the Board for approval. According to the "Compact," the Superintendent wouldn't have to provide the documents (have I mentioned these are PUBLIC documents?) unless a majority of the Board agreed with the Request. The "Compact" also would prohibit the elected board members from talking to the media.
You would think no elected official in his or her right mind would sign such a Code of Silence. Think again. Amazingly four of five Washington Township Board members have apparently agreed to sign. Only Wright had the courage to stand up for his constituents and say "No."
The Code of Silence is meant to implement the "Don't Air Your Dirty Laundry in Public" Philosophy. It works like this: Airing dirty laundry publicly undermines the "team." So if someone on the team is doing something bad, don't expose what that person is doing. Simply go to him or her and ask that person to stop. That person will be convinced by your arguments, relent and reform. Problem solved...the team remains strong.
Of course that philosophy doesn't work in practice. In the real world, people do bad things exactly because they know they can do it behind closed doors, that their actions are not going to be exposed. Simply having someone go up to the bad actor and ask that he or she change accomplishes nothing. For that bad actor, the only reason to change the behavior is when there is fear the door is going to be open, that the light of day is going to shine on the bad act.
That is exactly why we have open records laws. It is why we don't allow governmental bodies to make decisions behind closed doors, and then trot those decisions out to the public. It is the sunshine that acts as the disinfectant, the way we stop the bad acts from happening.
Wright and Bentley refused to play the typical School Board role of rubber stamp for administration decisions. They are heroes to me for their courageous public service. As their terms draw to an end we should thank them for all they did for the schools and the people they were elected to represent.


Diana Vice said...

Ditto to what you said. I'd like to add that you're also on my list of heroes, Paul Ogden!

Diana Vice said...

Happy Birthday, Greg Wright!

Sean Shepard said...

People often want the title but not the responsibility.

It may sound really impressive to tell people one is an elected whatchamacallit with a fancy title or a pretty gavel but if people aren't going to do the job than they overestimate their status and their importance.

I don't know as much Kelly Bentley but I do know Greg Wright. And Greg has been there for the right reasons. If only we had more like him.

varangianguard said...

Both those people should be sorely missed by the taxpayers in their respective school districts.

I don't know so much about Ms. Bentley, but I know that Mr. Wright has good ideas about education.

Had Enough Indy? said...

Good luck in your run. School Boards need to represent the people, not the Superintendents.

I am sorry to see independent people leave their seats on School Boards. But, it gets really hard to be among the 'no' votes on a continual basis with no hope for change in sight.