December 2009 Archives

ARTICLE: "School consolidation not needed, leader says". Starkville Daily News, 31 Dec 2009 p. A-5

Public officials are elected or appointed to carry out the wishes of those who elected or appointed them, within the bounds of reason and ethics. We all expect our elected officials to look out for our best interest but what should they do when they are appointed to serve on a board or committee of a higher authority and in effect, serve the interest of a large body. This not only happens with public officials but it also happens with military personnel. Military leaders often make decisions or give recommendations that may not be in the immediate best interest of those under their command or their specific branch of service.

The specific case which got me thinking about this today is Governor Barbour's committee to consider consolidation of school districts. Michael Kent serves as the Superintendent of Education for Madison County schools and is expected to look out for the best interests of that school district, the employees who work in the school district, and most importantly, the citizens of the school district. He was recently named to a committee to investigate the consolidation of school districts across the state. Mississippi has 82 counties but 152 school districts. The governor has suggested that state funds could be conserved if there were perhaps only 100 or so districts and has formed the Commission on Mississippi Education Structure to review the existing structure and make recommendations on consolidation.

Kent admits that he was surprised to be appointed to the commission because he has made it no secret that he is not interested in his district being consolidated with another. In fact, according to this article, he has said "protecting his district from any proposed school consolidation will be first priority while serving" on the commission. This conflict of interest, if you can even call it that, has been fully disclosed so it is not really a conflict at this point. The governor should be well aware of Kent's position and has the option of removing him from the commission or leaving him in place.

The real question, however, in the sense of duty, is how should Kent and other public servants in similar situations serve in such positions? Should their bias towards their local situation color their decisions for the larger public? Should they argue their position as strongly as they can and hope that others are arguing the opposite position? Can they really be of any service given they have already made their positions known and vowed to support them?

Public service is different from most other forms of service in that servants are serving the public good even though it may not be in their personal best interest. In this particular situation we have the governor who is looking out for the state as a whole who has indicated he favors consolidation and a commission member who has said he is opposed to consolidation, at least for his district. So what has happened here is that Kent has been placed in a difficult position. On the one hand he is obligated to "protect" his district; on the other hand he is supposed to help the governor improve education in the state and save money which may require consolidation.

The situation here is not uncommon; in fact it is better here than in other situations I have seen. In many committees, commissions, and task forces, biases exist but are never disclosed. Here Kent has made clear what his position is, as has the governor. Knowing this everything should be fine.

Military Time, Civilian Time

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This editorial, Military Time, Civilian Time, by Nathaniel Fick, is one reason why the Center for a New American Security has become my favorite think tank. Editorials such as this demonstrate that CNAS looks at both sides of the issues and makes it clear that most, if not all, public policy choices are difficult ones to make.

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