Last Tuesday, I had maybe one of the most pleasant surprises I’ve had in my career. People were having open, informed and intelligent debates about a governing board that I cover.
As a journalist, this was fantastic news to me and the fact that it was stirred by my coverage on the Newton Community School District passing its 2014-15 fiscal year budget made it all the more better.
I pride myself on being able to provide adequate coverage of the boards I cover and seeing people online and in person having these back and forth conversations on this subject gave me great joy.
I’ve been covering school boards in this county here for more than year now, and I’ve never seen a board story I’ve written shared on Facebook or spur such an enormous community conversation like the budget story has. As of yesterday, that story had been “Liked” 149 times, which is 149 times more than the normal amount of likes those stories receive.
That week’s meeting was a juggernaut — I brought 40 ounces of coffee with me, it was four hours long, there were 12 important action items, two reports were presented, I took three bathroom breaks and there were five public commenters. Having at least one person acknowledge they read my story on it would have been a boon. However, finding out hundreds of people have read it and have opinions on what transpired is an incredibly rewarding feeling.
Besides the interactions with people, one of my favorite things about journalism is the watchdog aspect. I jokingly told a friend who’s a doctor that “we suffer through public meetings, so that you don’t have to.” While I said this is in jest, it’s very much true.
What’s even funnier is this woman, who spent nearly a decade receiving an upper level education, saves lives daily and knows the human anatomy as well I know the 2007 Kansas Basketball roster told me, “I honestly can’t imagine what your life is like” when I told her about my current streak of Monday night meetings. Next week makes for No. 11.
In 2013, I attended countless public meetings and at least five or six budget hearings. At those hearings, there wasn’t a single public commenter and very scarce attendance for both the school district and the Jasper County Board of Supervisors. These were multi-million dollar budgets — your tax dollars — being allocated and not a single soul dared to show up to even ask a question.
I mean, what if the press wasn’t there? Hypothetically, if we had corrupt officials in place, those boards could have mismanaged funds, given out huge bonuses or spent on frivolous causes and no one would be any wiser.
My point is that although the press is there to make sure things are on the up and up, the public should be doing the same thing. One of the things that I admire about what Superintendent Bob Callaghan has done with the school board meetings is he always brings people in to watch and or partake in the process.
There were a number of meetings last year where it was Randy Van from KCOB, the board, members of the administration team, me and no one else. It’s refreshing to see the chairs behind the media table filled with citizens, teachers and various district staff members.
I encourage every citizen of Jasper County to stay informed on what’s going on in their city, the county and their schools. Here at the Daily News, we place the meeting agendas in the paper, but we also do meeting preview stories for school board, supervisors and city council. These stories are an in-depth analysis of potentially big issues that are on those agendas and highlight some of the recent activities those boards have done on those issues or other important matters.
I know public meetings can seem pretty daunting, come across as procedural and sometimes run long, but they are an important part of having an open and transparent government — at least on the local level. While I do feel I am very informed about what’s happening in Newton and several parts of the county, I wasn’t always so gung-ho about public meetings. Before I got this job, I had maybe been to five in my life.
Since last Monday, I’ve been to four, as well as United Way of Jasper County’s annual meeting.
I’ll admit going to these meetings may take a bit of learning curve — I’m still trying to memorize the names of the PCM School Board — but I love being able to see how my (and your) tax dollars are being managed and the cool things happening with our governing entities.
I groan and moan about long meetings, but I secretly (not-so-secretly if you ask me about a particular topic) enjoy these meetings. Yes, I know it’s weird, but so am I.
So help me, help you stay informed by attending a couple of meetings. Who knows? You just might end up liking it, too.