In March, the Woodside Elementary School District board endorsed a "polling and communication strategy" for an effort to renew the district's parcel tax. That plan included the mailing of a "public education" brochure to be sent out in March or April.
The brochure that materialized was in large part a progress report on the district's spending of Measure D bond funds: It highlighted the completion of the $8.26 million Sellman Auditorium, and invited the community to the auditorium's reopening and to an April 26 meeting focusing on the next phase of bond revenue-funded construction.
On the surface, the brochure was what it claimed to be in the small type: a public service to provide information to the community. But there was one perplexing component of the mailer: The Sellman Auditorium, it said, was "upgraded" and seismically retrofitted, its leaky roof repaired. In reality, however, the auditorium had been completely demolished and replaced.
After an Almanac reporter noticed this odd discrepancy in the publicly funded brochure, she did what reporters do. She asked how this misinformation found its way into an informational mailer. Was it carelessness? A lapse in supervision of an outside party hired to create the brochure?
The question takes on a greater significance when one considers that the brochure was part of a campaign strategy designed to persuade voters to approve a parcel tax in November. In that light, the mailer's implicit message to potential voters becomes: See how responsibly we spend your bond money as an investment in our school? Now continue your investment by supporting the parcel tax.
There could be a simple answer to our reporter's question. Perhaps: "We messed up we're sorry. We'll be more careful in the future." So was that the case? Unfortunately, we don't know. The superintendent and the school board five elected officials who are supposed to be accountable to the public have circled the wagons. They aren't talking to our reporter.
In our view, the puzzling rewriting of history that is included in the brochure a misstatement of fact that many in the community might have noticed as well but shrugged off as a careless error isn't the biggest problem to surface as we look for an explanation. The matter has evolved into an even more serious question: How do public school district officials justify refusing to talk to the public in this case the local newspaper about public business they are supposed to be conducting openly and transparently?
After a long delay and many attempts to get district officials to respond to our questions, Superintendent Beth Polito was apparently given the green light to contact the Almanac late last week, long after we published an article about the situation. She acknowledged that she signed off on the text for the brochure, which was produced by a political consultant hired by the district. But she wasn't willing to elaborate on details until one or more board members could join her to discuss the matter, she said.
Ms. Polito's bosses, the elected school board members, might want to consider how their silence on a matter the public has a right to be informed about undermines trust. They plan to ask voters later this year to continue taxing themselves as an investment in the school. In May or June, according to the strategic schedule they endorsed last month, the district will send out another mailer linked to the parcel tax renewal effort.
If the discrepancy in the first mailer isn't explained adequately, the public would be right to question the accuracy of future informational material connected with the parcel tax effort. It's a matter of accountability, and we hope the elected leaders of the district will take their responsibility to be accountable to the public seriously.