EDITORIAL: Board should rescind contract

The Dispatch Editorial Board
FILE - In this Thursday, May 4, 2017 file photo, a third-grader punches in her student identification to pay for a meal at Gonzales Community School in Santa Fe, N.M. All students are offered the same lunch at Gonzales and other Santa Fe public schools to avoid any chance of embarrassing students whose parents may have fallen behind on meal payments. In April 2017, New Mexico became the first state to outlaw the shaming of children for any unpaid meals. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)

Here's your Word of the Day, South Western school board members: Optics.

It's what frames public opinion. It defines arguments. It dictates perceived reality.

And, after contracting with a debt collection agency owned by the family of school board member, the optics aren't good.

The recent no-bid contract with J.P. Harris Associates was already going to be problematic from a political standpoint.

Siccing for-profit debt collectors on students and their families for perhaps a couple of hundred dollars-worth of unpaid cafeteria bills was already going to be a tough sell for an over-taxed public wondering where all the money goes.

Then, in one of the most tone-deaf moves in recent memory, the school board and administrators forgo a bid process.

Instead, eight of the district's nine board members voted to ratify the deal with J.P. Harris. Board member James Harris abstained.

That abstention was key here. Harris didn't vote because he had a clear conflict of interest. His father owns the Mechanicsburg-based collection agency.

So, in short, a board member's family stands to profit by collecting debt from recent South Western graduates.

And yet, when pressed this week, administrators defended the move. And, in an all too common occurrence, most board members — elected officials, mind you — refused to comment. 

They're acting as if J.P. Harris is the only debt collection agency in the country. 

From a political standpoint alone, the contract with J.P Harris was an action by officials who neither consider the public's opinion nor much care about it. It bears too much resemblance to the petty grift that's eroding confidence in public institutions. 

Ethically, Harris' conflict taints the entire board, which rubber stamped the deal. It's hard to believe that not one school board member had the sense to rail against the contract or, at least, dissent when it came up for a vote.

The vote to ratify the deal — clearly spearheaded by administration — was symptomatic of a problem that's all too common among school boards in particular, legislative bodies typically composed of political novices who roll over when pressed by political appointees.

The longer South Western officials dig in, the deeper their grave becomes. All the while, a collection agency will be haranguing former students and their families for scraps and tacking on fees for the privilege. 

The contract was short-sighted and ethically questionable. It draws a direct line between recent students and the pockets of a board member's family. And it rightly undercuts trust in a school board that's supposed to act in the interest of taxpayers and students.

Rescind the contract or suffer the consequences.