For more than 25 years, we have reported on government at all levels, from federal and state agencies, county boards, city councils, township boards, and school districts. During that time we have naturally butted heads with the occasional public official who was averse to the notion of accountability.
We have, however, never seen a situation where a public official has actively sought to prevent us from fulfilling our role as reporters of the news, and urged non-cooperation from other officials. That is, until now.
In an Aug. 11 email to members of the St. Louis County School Board, Superintendent Steve Sallee informs school board members that the district will not be responding to emailed questions from the Timberjay, and urges board members not to communicate with the newspaper in any way.
Sallee says he’s been advised by the school district attorney, John Colosimo, not to respond. And Sallee goes on to say: “Even the questions are so biased, it’s not even worth responding.”
Our questions, indeed our entire email seeking information, is reprinted here on the left, so readers can see for themselves what Mr. Sallee has dismissed as too biased to answer.
As readers will see, we were simply seeking clarification or asking for the school district’s view of certain budgetary concerns. Far from biased, they were routine questions that we ask of public officials all the time. Most frequently, they thank us for taking the time to solicit their views and offer the opportunity for clarification.
Mr. Sallee is free to harbor a grudge against the Timberjay’s publisher if he so chooses. But to tell school board members not to talk to the media is extraordinary. Unlike Mr. Sallee, school board members are elected officials, who are individually accountable to the voters. They aren’t supposed to be tools or functionaries for superintendents with an ax to grind.
Indeed, the superintendent is supposed to work for the board, not the other way around. To understand how unusual Mr. Sallee’s advice is, just imagine the St. Louis County Administrator telling county commissioners not to talk to a newspaper in their district, just because the administrator doesn’t like the publisher. The commissioners would laugh in his face. Imagine the city clerk in Ely, Tower, or Orr, telling city councilors the same thing. It just wouldn’t happen.
It wouldn’t happen in most other school districts, either. This is the kind of thing that could only happen in a school district where the normal lines of leadership have been turned upside down and where transparency and accountability rate low on the list of priorities.
Mr. Sallee can’t possibly believe that the questions posed by the Timberjay were biased. But he, undoubtedly, wants to discredit them, lest board members start asking such questions themselves. Such as question three, which asked how it was that the district went from a $1.8 million surplus in the 2014-15 school year to a $600,000 deficit one year later. That’s an obvious question, one that any informed and engaged board member should have already asked.
Unfortunately, this is a school district where board members are discouraged from asking critical questions.
Ultimately, of course, Mr. Sallee’s efforts to discourage the Timberjay from reporting accurately on the school district will achieve nothing. We prefer to get information by asking questions, such as the ones we posed earlier this month, because it’s easier for both our reporters and for the school district. The alternative is to request relevant documents from the school district under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, and to use those documents to determine the answers to our questions for ourselves. District administrators may be able to refuse to answer questions, but they can’t deny a document request, at least not legally.
We’d prefer to avoid such an approach, which is cumbersome and is often perceived by public bodies as antagonistic, but this is the only viable option left us if Mr. Sallee opts to persist in such behavior. The school board and the public are poorly served by such intransigence and we hope the board and the superintendent will reconsider this peculiar approach and reopen communication. Pettiness serves no justifiable function and certainly does not advance the public’s legitimate interest in understanding the workings of the school district. We all have a right to expect a higher standard from public officials.