A Plea for Participation

By Beacon Staff

It appears as though Polson School District has become the latest victim in a trend of exclusionary decision-making that has quietly crept through the school boards of Montana. Shrouded in a dark veil of benevolence, and touted as following policy and Montana law, these oligarchic actions are, at their essence, contrary to participatory democracy.

A situation similar to the Polson reconfiguration occurred when the Sun River Valley District voted to close the middle school in a highly contested vote, resulting in one trustee filing suit. The suit was based on lack of public notification, the board’s dismissal of need for justification of the superintendent’s reasoning, and the inaccessibility of the supporting documents to the public. Through public pressure, Sun River Valley recognized the impropriety of their vote and reconsidered a motion to close the school one month later. The motion failed.

The above event is just one example of a multitude of Montana school board actions in direct opposition to not only the open meeting laws, but the democracy on which our country is founded. The events surrounding the Polson school board’s vote on reconfiguration is no different.

Some might state that posting meeting notices 48 hours in advance, albeit at the start of the Memorial Day weekend and via handouts brought home by children, fulfills the legal requirements of our state’s open meeting laws. Moreover, the public commentary policy is supposedly met by allowing the community its two minutes. But are any of these legalities truly the issue at stake? In a sense, yes; because they are rules that guide and hold us firm in our government. However, these laws are not meant to be followed as rote motions. They are intended to afford us, the Montana constituents, opportunities to PARTICIPATE in our government. It appears that the true issue lies in the intentions with which these processes were handled. Without the intention to uphold a participatory democracy, our laws mean nothing. They become mere items on a checklist; far from the checks and balances meant to hold our elected officials within the bounds of our government.

Yes, the Polson trustees should be held responsible for their actions in such a dubious and exclusionary process. As our elected officials their duty charges that they represent our voices. BUT, the sustenance of our democracy does not exclusively fall on the heads of our elected officials. It also falls on us. When we do not exercise our rights to participate, our rights slowly erode. And the first issue or process with which we find fault may not appear to directly affect us. Then the second issue appears, and the third; until we get to a point at which we know not where the decay set in. As Robert Maynard Hutchins wrote “The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment.”

It is our responsibility to stay connected with our local government. It is our duty to speak out when we believe our officials have erred. Most importantly, it is our inalienable rights that allow us to participate in this democracy.

Heather Davies