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FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 18, 2005
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EDITORIAL

Time to put Montgomery officials on lengthy leave

The Montgomery County school board is asking the wrong questions in its opposition to record requests made by the Montgomery Advertiser.

Instead of asking, "Do we have to reveal the records?" it should be asking, "Is there a way we can release the records?"

The dispute involves whether the state's open-records law requires the school board to reveal the names of those employees it places on administrative leave. The Advertiser argues the individuals are public employees and the public has a right to see documents relating to their discipline.

By hiding records, the Montgomery County school board is depriving parents of their ability to fairly evaluate school employees who have taught, and may again teach, their children.

Insecure public officials regularly quake at the prospect of revealing unsavory documents. By the time they stand in front of a judge, such officials generally have come up with a legal argument justifying their secrecy. At root, however, the problem arises when officials fear their actions, once exposed, will reflect badly upon them.

They are sometimes right, which is precisely why this state has a public-records law. The issue is related to the open-meeting bill, championed by state Sen. Zeb Little, D-Cullman, that received a unanimous vote in the Senate on Wednesday. Advocates of openness in government hope to put teeth in the open-record law after an anticipated victory that would let the sunshine of public scrutiny illuminate meetings of state decision-makers.

If school officials' actions were defensible, the Montgomery County school board should be trying to find a way to explain those actions to their constituents, not trying to figure out a legal argument for hiding their actions from public view.

Alabama taxpayers pay the salaries of school board members and school employees. Those taxpayers are not incidental to the democratic process; rather, they are its focus.

Whatever the result of the coming legal battle, voters should understand that the officials they voted into office believe them to be incapable of understanding the complexities of school disciplinary issues.

The next election should present Montgomery County taxpayers with a simple mission. The collective wisdom of the voting public should add the school board members to the list of those on administrative leave.

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