A missed opportunity

Published 8:11 am Friday, February 13, 2009

A majority of the Franklin City Council had valid reasons, we’re convinced, to reappoint David Benton to the city school board.

By choosing secrecy and silence during the decision-making process, however, those council members missed an opportunity to begin restoring the trust of a divided and skeptical community. They also did no favors for Benton, who returns to the school board amid suspicion by many that his reappointment was more about cronyism and race than about the best interest of Franklin’s public schools.

There were perfectly good reasons to reappoint Benton to serve out a short term that expires June 30. He is a passionate believer in public education and a man of high character. His service will bring continuity to the search for a new superintendent and to the preparation of a fiscal 2010 budget that will be painfully lean.

But given the opportunity to make that case to the community, the four men who supported Benton opted to hash out this critically important decision of intense taxpayer interest entirely behind closed doors, despite Councilwoman Mary Hilliard’s wise call for an open deliberation. Then, after returning to open session, the four offered not a word of explanation before or after casting their vote.

Some have suggested that certain “information” about the candidates for the school board seat needed to be discussed in private, presumably to protect the reputations of the candidates. That’s perfectly legitimate. But it didn’t have to be all or nothing. The council could have discussed those narrow points in secret and still had an open dialogue about the appointment.

At a minimum, the four Benton supporters, before casting their votes, could have extended a public olive branch to their council colleagues, to the citizens who spoke against the Benton appointment and to the large audience at City Hall. They could have assured the community that their decision was entirely about Benton’s being better qualified for the job and not about personal loyalties or the racial makeup of the school board. They could have called for healing after a divisive process and encouraged citizens, black and white, to redirect the passion and energy surrounding the school board fight to the betterment of our city’s schools.

Unfortunately, given an opportunity to set a good example for the citizenry, the council majority opted for silence.

Open and honest dialog is this community’s best chance at building better understanding and harmony. It won’t always be pretty. There will be spats, dust-ups and hurt feelings. But we’ll emerge stronger from the