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Editorial: Workshop meeting left a bad taste

The District 196 School Board held a meeting Monday night to take its first formal look the at budget cuts it expects to make over the next two or three years. The results of that discussion are covered on the front page of this week's Town Pages.

Don't feel bad if you didn't know. There probably weren't many who did.

The meeting was held during a Monday night workshop for which the agenda listed only a closed-to-the-public student expulsion and a discussion of board goals.

There was no mention of cuts that could result in the elimination of more than 100 positions over the next year, middle school sports and after-school activity buses, among other things. The meeting was held at a different time and in a different place than the regular board meeting that would typically have been held on the fourth Monday of the month.

We find that troubling.

District communication specialist Tony Taschner pointed out Tuesday that managing the budget is one of the district's goals, but the board didn't address any of its other goals in as much detail. After an hour and a half of budget discussion superintendent Jane Berenz simply announced, "We're doing the goals" as the board wrapped up.

The kinds of cuts the district is looking at rise well above the level of managing goals.

The reality is, as school board and city council meetings are broadcast more often on cable television and archived online government bodies are more and more moving their most important -- and potentially controversial -- discussions to non-televised workshop meetings. We've heard elected representatives from government bodies in other cities say at public meetings that perhaps they could speak more freely if only the media weren't around.

Residents are still allowed to show up at workshop meetings, but most don't. Even when there is a full agenda available.

When the district made large budget cuts several years ago much of the kind of discussions that were held Monday night were held at regular board meetings. It made those meetings long and often tedious, but it also made them more substantive than many meetings are today.

We don't believe ISD 196 is trying to sneak these cuts through. The district has said there will be public discussions of the proposed cuts in February and there will be more time for the public to speak out when the board holds its formal readings at two meetings in March. But by that time the board will be able to present a pre-determined package. The public will miss out on much of the discussion that went into creating that package.

That might not change the outcome of the cuts, but as a newspaper we find any move away from making government activities as open as possible is a move in the wrong direction.

Whether or not the district was truly trying to hide its discussion, the move left a bad taste in our mouths.