Fox: School board's anonymity next to cowardice

Friday, July 17, 2009

As the parent of two children, one of whom is still in elementary school, I've been reminded of one of the most basic axioms of academia: put your name on your paper.

Some adults would be surprised how many children fail to do this.

Then again, some children would be shocked how many adults fail to do this.

Of course, the subject has come up recently. The Marshall County School Board recently evaluated its Director of Schools, Stan Curtis, and its members each rated the director on a complicated series of questions. The scores were wide-ranging -- three members gave Curtis extremely low marks, while one gave him the best marks possible.

Fair enough. Opinions on any public official usually have a wide range, sometimes an extreme range.

The problem, of course, is that the evaluations were not signed.

Anonymity has many perils. And the case of Curtis' scores -- put it in the legal-but-not-moral category -- demonstrates the most perilous of them all: questions usually answered in anonymity always beget more questions.

* Who were the three board members who gave Curtis such low scores? Do they have an ax to grind, and did a vendetta take precedence over what's best for the children of this county? Observers of the school board think they know -- but do they?

* Who was the board member who gave Curtis perfect marks? Why did the member not write any comments supporting his or her scoring? Does a lack of supporting comments suggest a whimsical interest in the process?

I'm not suggesting I know the answers. Frankly, no one knows for certain -- except the board members themselves. They aren't talking.

And there are no names on any of the papers.

Of course, this epidemic of anonymity isn't new, nor is it confined to members of our school board. I do think, however, it has widened thanks to the digital age.

Take message boards, for instance. Any computer user can log on to a Web site and comment about things ranging from quarterbacks to laundry detergent, and from political figures to controversial topics.

Most users don't use their real names because there are dangers in being too public. They feel it's too easy for someone with sinister motives to track them down and carry an argument much further than anyone could with a keyboard. And as long as they don't want to be taken too seriously -- it's only a message board -- that's probably the right call.

But in serious matters, anonymity is the easy way out.

Like 95 percent of other newspapers in this country, the Tribune doesn't publish unsigned letters to the editor. An anonymous letter comes into the office once in a while and although I read it, I realize that in the end, it most often has no value.

Opinions that don't have a name attached are just this side of worthless. However strong the sentiment for those opinions, it wasn't strong enough to merit whatever risk comes with taking a stand.

Given that, it's difficult to take the Curtis evaluations seriously. The issue is somewhat moot after the board voted down a motion to discuss termination of Curtis' contract, but the lesson remains.

Put your name on your paper, guys. If you need help, I have two children who can help you.