The public – not the newspaper – deserves to know
I’m sure the founders of Haywood County’s new charter school — Shining Rock Classical Academy — never imagined a week like the one they just had.
Not only was our newspaper challenging them on what we feel sure were violations of the N.C. Open Meetings Law, other media were giving ink and air time to problems at what may become the new location for their school. Seems surveys done at the property damaged the corn crop of the farmer currently leasing the site. Lawyers have gotten involved, meaning the site acquisition process just got more complicated.
The stories we printed in last week’s edition had to do with the refusal by the school board chairman Tara Keilberg to release the location of the site being considered for the new school. According to state law and a ruling that went all the way to the state Appeals Court (for an explanation just google “Boney Publishers, Inc. v. Burlington City Council” and anyone can see how the statute has been interpreted), once public bodies begin negotiating for a piece of land they have to reveal where the land is located. The negotiations — primarily what price is being offered and the horse trading that often occurs in land purchases — can remain secret. The location must be revealed.
For some reason, Shining Rock’s attorney was telling them the opposite, that they did not have to reveal the location. His reasoning was that if the board is still looking at several sites, then they don’t have to reveal the location.
I’m no lawyer, but this is one law I have studied and relied upon. As soon as a public body authorizes its representative — in this case, Keilberg — to begin making offers and negotiating to purchase a particular piece of land, it has to reveal its location. Case closed.
Look, we understand the difficulty of what this group is trying to accomplish. Keilberg and the Shining Rock board are starting a school from the ground up. That’s a monumental task and one that has taken years. The whole “public body” issue and the responsibility and legal requirements that come with accepting state tax dollars is something that even experienced leaders get tripped up on.
Reporters across this state and the entire country often go toe-to-toe with local elected leaders over this issue. We have frank discussions via email or over the phone with county and town managers and attorneys. We attend workshops and seminars to make sure we know the law. We don’t do this so the newspaper can get access to information, to get a scoop, or to try to harass public officials. No good would come of that.
No, we do it because the public — meaning every citizen of this state — has a right to this information. It’s really as simple as that. The N.C. Press Association spends lots of money on a lobbyist who monitors every bill introduced in the General Assembly to determine if it infringes on the public’s access to information. I suspect every newspaper association in the country does the same.
Again, we don’t do this for our own sake. Newspapers don’t get special rights. Any information we have access to is also available to any member of the public. We just happen to be trained in how to get the information. That’s our job. It’s what we do.
So we wrote in last week’s story that, “Despite several attempts by the newspaper to bring the charter school board around, Keilberg maintained they could keep the location secret until the contract was signed, despite having already voted to buy it.” The charter school board chairman claims that it’s not our job to educate her board about open meeting laws.
I will respectfully disagree. That’s what we do, what every good newspaper does. When they don’t adhere to open meeting laws, we let public bodies know it. We tell them first, then we tell them we’re going to write a story if they don’t adhere to the law, and then finally we go ahead with the story. Once we get to that point, we get the legal experts we’ve been discussing the violation with to weigh in. In this case, we even got other local elected leaders and attorneys to weigh in because they have dealt with open meetings issues for years.
I know many of those trying to get this school started, and I firmly believe they will succeed. At some point, adhering to the open government responsibilities that come with spending tax dollars should become second nature, as will working with the media. Hopefully, that will happen in the very near future.
Smoky Mountain News reporter Becky Johnson was involved with Shining Rock Classical Academy’s leaders two years ago when they were still a steering committee that was working on starting a charter school. Johnson left the steering committee in August 2013. Today she is not affiliated in any way with the school.
Due to that involvement and Johnson’s subsequent departure from the steering committee, some on Shining Rock’s board think she has a conflict of interest and should not be working as a reporter on any stories having to do with the school.
I’ll have to respectfully disagree. Here’s the truth about we editors and reporters, especially at small newspapers in small towns: we have lives outside of work, but we have to learn to separate the two. I have been involved in everything from AYSO soccer to the Haywood County Schools Foundation Board, from Voices in the Laurel choir to the Haywood County Economic Development Commission, from Fund for Haywood County to the Pigeon River Fund Board, and literally dozens of other committees, groups, etc.
We write about all these organizations, and so some could say there is a conflict of interest each time I edit one of those stories. But that’s simply not the case, and in fact we go out of our way to make sure that we report fairly on the activities of these organizations — the good and the bad — potentially over-compensating for what we fear might be our own biases.
Do we always succeed? Of course not, and so when I’m out eating dinner, at a street festival, at a game, in church or at the grocery store, I often hear about it. And it makes me more acutely aware of how hard we have to work to remain as unbiased as possible and fair to all the parties we are covering.
If Johnson was involved with Shining Rock today, of course she wouldn’t be covering them. But claims that her former involvement with the steering committee makes her unable to report fairly about the school are unfounded.