September 2017 Editorial Winner

Kaylea Hutson-Miller, The Delaware County Journal

On Thursday, Sept. 14, members of the Jay Public Schools Board of Education voted 3-1 to discontinue slow-pitch softball.
During the meeting, no discussion took place among the board members. They simply addressed the issue, voted and the decision was made.
A school program impacting multiple lives was over.
Board President David Holcombe and members Arden Jackson and Virgil Stump voted to discontinue the program. Member Ashley Williamson was the sole voice voting to keep it. Member Monte Rutherford was not present.
On Sept. 14, Jay School Superintendent Kenneth Bridges said the decision was due to budget issues. He reaffirmed that reasoning on Monday, Sept. 18, in a written statement, sent to the Delaware County Journal by e-mail.
“We cut twelve positions during the 2015-16 school year to maintain a positive fund balance. The results helped us fiscally, but a dozen people and their families were adversely affected,” Bridges wrote. “The decision to discontinue slowpitch softball pales by comparison, or should... these kind of measures will almost certainly be increasingly necessary in the coming months.
“Under my watch, academics will always take precedence when considering macroeconomic variables.”
We can certainly understand the need to tighten the budget. School districts throughout Delaware County are making similar decisions. Budgets are being trimmed to the bone, and then some, in order to ensure students have the best education possible.
Academics should always be a priority.
However, we take issue with the way the program was discontinued. The lack of public discussion — or even advance warning beyond the meeting agenda concerning the program’s dire straits — was limited.
The move to place the item in the executive session, although corrected before the meeting, seems as if the board was reluctant to face the public concerning the issue. We are glad the board remedied the issue before the meeting.
But not allowing, or at least encouraging, public comments by district patrons is concerning.
The 28 members of the softball community — parents, students and district patrons — by far make up the largest number of non-school officials in attendance at a school board meeting for much of 2017.
They should be applauded for taking time to attend a meeting, and showing they care about the district.
Too many people complain about issues without taking action. Attending the meeting was the first step to having their voices heard.
Unfortunately, it appears as if the board chose not to allow them to speak.
Yes, the agenda item for public comment had passed when patrons realized they had been overlooked. Yes, the adults should have listened closer to the beginning of the meeting — where the public comment section resides.
However, the board could have taken steps to rectify the issue when it became apparent that members of the community — voters within the district — wanted to speak on the issue.
Instead, those present were told — incorrectly — by a member of the administration the issue was tabled, when board members removed it from the closed session.
Parents were encouraged to leave the meeting, before its conclusion, thinking the program was safe for another day. Many, because of the late hour, did.
Those who remained at the meeting, watched as the board returned from the closed session and in their last order of business, voted to discontinue the program that’s had at least three girls reach all-state status in the past four years, and helped numerous others obtain college scholarships.
The superintendent and board president refused to answer questions, posed by both the media and by patrons, concerning the decision.
The board’s decision not to discuss the issues surrounding the cancellation of the program, seems as if they are hiding something, no matter how dire the economic climate of the school.
Board members are elected individuals. They represent the district patrons. They must make hard decisions.
The Oklahoma Open Meeting, Open Records statutes ensure the decisions are made in front of the public.
We do not believe the board discussed the issue during the closed session — Williamson’s reaction makes it appear she was shocked to be voting on the issue that night.
However, the decision not to have a discussion in front of the patrons leads us to wonder if conversations took place in off-the-books meetings, behind closed doors.
One would hope the board would discuss an issue regarding the reduction of a program at some length, rather than simply serving as “yes” men and women to the administration.
Yes the spotlight is harsh at times. Hard decisions must be made, but those made in the light of day, rather than in secret, are more palatable.
Maybe, if supporters knew how much funding needed to be recovered — to ensure the program continued — alternative funding sources could have been found.
The Jay Public Schools has a multitude of supporters and alumni. Many who would like to see the slow-pitch program continue. Could there have been a way to save the program — we will never know. The decision was made without public input.
Transparency, both within the meeting, and by answering questions after the meeting, would benefit both district officials and patrons.
It would let the superintendent and the board be honest with the public about the district’s financial issues — and it would give the patrons a chance to step up to help.
Was the decision to cancel the slow-pitch softball difficult? Yes. Could it have been handled differently? Yes.
Bridges warns harder decisions may be coming. We hope the board chooses transparency as the school year continues.
It’s only when we put items on the table, so all can have input, that we can find the best solutions to our problems.
There’s a saying that the truth will set you free. In this case, we believe transparency is key to public trust.

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