What can I do if our school board members won’t answer questions?

Question:  We have a problem with access to school board members.  By policy, they don’t talk with the press.  They refer all interview requests to the superintendent’s office.  During board meetings, they have set aside a time for public comment, but they don’t allow questions even then.  You can say whatever you want, but you can’t query the board.  They do not violate the Texas Public Information law in their meetings, but there’s no opportunity to find out what they are thinking about the votes they are taking.  How can we get them to take questions from us or give us some interview time?

Answer:This is an interesting situation without an easy answer.

First, let me say that it is typical of most boards and commissions not to respond during public comment periods. The public is generally given a specific time to voice concerns, and most officials do not respond, or get into a debate, during this period. Typically the board president or leader will thank the speaker and sometimes they will indicate they are referring it to a staff member for consideration. So I wouldn't worry about that too much.

But having elected officials who refuse to comment on any public issue, and who refer those questions to someone who works for them, is very odd. As a journalist, you can't make them talk to you, but you can make it obvious to the general public that the board is refusing to discuss important issues. Is there a particular issue right now that you are writing about? I'd suggest you do an entire story on the fact that the elected officials refuse to discuss matters of interest to the community. You might also submit an open records request for any emails exchanged among the board and the staff on that topic. That would be one way to get their attention.

Are there any teacher groups or citizen groups that are complaining about the lack of communication from the board? Those would be important voices to include in the story, and would drive home for readers that this is not about a journalist getting his feelings hurt but a failure to communicate about matters of importance to the general public.

I would also recommend that every time you have a story, you should seek out comments and include a line in the story that the individual board members would not comment.

Good luck.

By Dianna Hunt

Dianna Hunt, a reporter/editor at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and former co-owner of the weekly Bosque County News, spent more than 25 years at some of the largest newspapers in Texas and in community journalism.

She has worked at The Dallas Morning News, the Houston Chronicle, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, covering a variety of government beats, including multiple City Halls, federal courts, public education and the Texas Legislature.

Many of those years were also spent as a watchdog/investigative reporter producing stories on racial profiling in the Houston area and throughout Texas, improprieties among nonprofits, failure of federal emergency funding to reach the neediest victims of a tornado, and problems within suburban fire departments in North Texas.

She won the Texas APME Freedom of Information award twice and the national Brechner Award for Freedom of Information for packages of stories about open government, and she has also won state and national awards for feature writing, short features and spot news.

She moved into editing in 2001 to oversee the government reporters at the Star-Telegram, and later moved to the business department as an assistant business editor. She recently returned to reporting in a combined reporting/editing role.

She and her husband, longtime Texas journalist Evan Moore, are also former co-owners of the Bosque County News in Meridian, southwest of Fort Worth, covering a county of about 22,000 people with seven cities and eight school districts.

She is a former board member of the Investigative Reporters & Editors organization, and is a member of the Native American Journalists Association. She received a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1981 from the University of Texas at Austin.