Elected leaders should listen to constituents

Thursday, January 16, 2003

Whether it comes early -- or late -- elected officials should not ignore public dissent. That doesn't mean the decision-makers should always go along with their critics; but it does mean they should give the dissenters ample opportunity to explain their opposition.

This bit of advice is being brought forward today for all boards to consider; but most especially the McCook Board of Education. Despite vehement opposition from three McCook men, the school board voted unanimously Tuesday night to close the West Ward elementary facility and declare the building as salvage.

The board's point in doing so was that members felt an adequate amount of time had been allowed for public comment. The members pointed out that the decision to close West Ward was made nearly a year ago.

At that time, the board authorized moving the pre-school and K-3 students from West Ward to the North and East Ward schools, and placing fourth and fifth grade pupils at Central Elementary, sixth through eighth grade students at the junior high, and freshmen through seniors at the senior high school.

But -- on the night the board had set aside to finalize action on the closing of West Ward -- three men appeared at the meeting, taking strong exception to the board's and administration's plans. Dal Wood, Phil Lyons and David Haller were quite vocal in their opposition, saying the current Ward buildings are operational and serviceable, and should be renovated to meet the needs of students.

The men also criticized the modular classrooms being used for some elementary classrooms, with Haller referring to them as "tin shanties."

Justified or not, the critics deserve to be heard. It's as the board's student representative, Tyler Bieck, said: "Are you just going to ignore these comments from the public? I suggest you stop and listen."

And -- despite their 6-0 vote -- the board, in the end, said it would do just that. Jack Clark, a veteran member of the board, told the critics of the West Ward closing: "The board will listen. If there's another plan, we're willing to listen."

However, if the school is going to proceed with the closing of West Ward and the movement of pupils to other schools before fall classes begin, there's not much time left to consider alternative plans.

That's why the board president, Greg Larson, encouraged Wood, Lyons and Haller to bring their their plan forward quickly. "The sooner the better," he said.

Although Lyons is on the other side of the table this time, he knows from his service on the City Council that the wisest course of action is to listen to what the public has to say ... no matter when the opposition comes.

The school board members have given the West Ward closing a lot of thought; and they're convinced they are doing the right thing. But they'll be better off in the long run if they give their critics a full and fair hearing.

Now's the time to express and consider opposition. Very soon, it will be too late

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