Macon makes mistakes in quest to pass school bonds

Macon County Schools superintendent Dan Brigman, school board attorney John Henning Jr. and the school board as a whole did not do itself any favors in its handling of the very important bond referendum that citizens voted on Tuesday. In fact, the system made some serious mistakes, and as a whole the administration should have been more informed first and, after mistakes happened, more upfront about its mistakes. Finally, the schools system should have been more forthright to parents and voters.

Because of the press deadlines for our newspaper, as of this writing we’re not sure how the vote turned out in Macon County on the $42 million bond package for school construction. But that is not really the issue. What’s important is that school system employees, voters, and all the citizens of Macon County know exactly what happened.

The problems started when the school board voted to spend $5,000 to inform the public about the bond. When this informational money was spent on billboards, signs and fliers advocating a “yes” vote for the bond, clearly Brigman or Henning should have known better. It is a violation of state statutes for public dollars to be spent for political purposes. School bond referendums are held all the time, and one phone call to the state school board association could have kept the system out of this mess.

After questions were raised about the school system’s activities, a committee called Citizens for Better Schools was formed. Many of the leaders of this group are either employees of the school system or closely tied to it. Questions have been raised about whether their activity was taking place on school time. We believe there are enough supporters of the school system that a more independent committee should have been formed. It just wouldn’t have been that difficult.

It would be easier to forgive all of this, as state elections investigators will likely do, if school officials had been a little more contrite. School board members interviewed by various media outlets have said they were sorry for the mistakes, but there some instances where Brigman seemed more annoyed and elusive than genuinely remorseful.

When asked by a Smoky Mountain News reporter if fliers advocating a yes vote for the bond were sent home with students, he told us he didn’t know. That answer just doesn’t cut it. In a system as small as Macon County, the superintendent should know the answer to such a simple question. Here was an opportunity to admit a mistake, say corrective action has been taken, and move on. Instead, the public gets a coy response.

After the school system had been notified of its mistakes but prior to a news article appearing in the Macon County News, public meetings regarding the bond were continuing to be held at schools. Attendees at those meetings were not notified of the board’s problems — that it had inappropriately spent public money but now was on the right path, that the fliers and billboards should have been the brainchild of bond advocates and not school system employees. The citizens attending those public meetings did not get to here about any of this.

When entrusting elected officials and their hired help to spend $42 million wisely, we should be able to expect research, complete honesty, and subsequent wise choices. In this case, school leaders fell woefully short. Perhaps more importantly, in a time when children are in need of character education, we get a dog and pony show trotted out in an atmosphere that just was not sincere. That’s regrettable.

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