Raised voices do not get us anywhere

Published 11:34 pm Tuesday, September 25, 2007

It’s easy to have a public meeting without the public. Our local government does it all the time.

If the city budget is on the agenda, or it’s a hearing to take over control of a roadway or proceed with a $960,000 grant the boardroom is typically empty, minus a newspaper reporter.

It’s difficult for the general public to understand how things like the budget work and why it’s important to them.

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So they just don’t come.

Then, local leaders have no trouble passing their plans right on through.

But every once in a while a public issue does grab the attention of the masses and the meetings become not so easy.

This happened last spring when the Natchez-Adams School District was required by law to host a meeting in regards to the failing status of Robert Lewis Middle School.

The district advertised the meeting, sent home fliers and showed up. So did the public.

The superintendent made the necessary presentation and opened the floor for questions.

And the questions didn’t stop. With the exception of a few, the questions weren’t questions at all. They were accusations.

A room full — close to 200 if my memory serves me — began attacking the district and its leaders.

Tensions boiled that night and for weeks after.

Since that point the community has cried out for more chances to have meetings with the school leaders and board members.

PTA meetings and monthly school board meetings weren’t enough, as the public sought a time to have their specific questions answered directly.

So, the district answered with a Monday night meeting.

The meeting was at the Steckler Multipurpose Center — just like the one last spring. And some of the same public faces showed up.

But everything else was different.

The superintendent and his staff came prepared for the worst, it seemed, so they cut trouble off at the knees.

Questions to be addressed had to be submitted in advance. The public was not allowed a time to speak. And a raised stage with seats for district personnel lined the front of the room as a sort of line of defense behind the speaker.

No one yelled. And 39 questions were answered.

Sure, some of the written questions still sounded accusatory. “Are we satisfied with ‘D’ level schools?” “Why is Natchez-Adams School District employing people from outside Natchez?”

And some just off the wall.

“Last year and this year, I have noticed that the children do not eat their lunch, I think it is at all schools, but especially at West, I have two grandchildren attending. Why don’t they change the lunch so the children can eat? They just play with the lunch.”

The superintendent or a member of his staff addressed each question, though some got more in-depth answers than others.

It’s not ideal to have a public meeting where the public is kept silent.

But based on previous experiences and the need to cover a lot of ground before midnight, Monday night’s meeting format was the best choice.

Sure, some in the community still feel like their voices weren’t heard. But it’s a lesson. If the public can’t control itself, ask questions with respect and listen quietly for the answer, nothing will get accomplished.

You don’t have to agree with every answer put forth by school leaders, but they do deserve our respect, just like any other human being. And the public needs to acknowledge that many of the school leaders know and understand the intricacies of education better than an average citizen.

The schools have said they plan to have more meetings in the future, and they plan to allow the public to speak.

When that time comes, let’s hope the lesson is learned that raised voices and closed ears get our community nowhere.

And we all have somewhere to go.

Julie Finley is the managing editor of The Natchez Democrat. She can be reached at 601-445-3551 or julie.finley@natchezdemocrat.com.