Last Sunday, the Fairfax County School Board ended a three-day retreat at the Airlie House in Warrenton.
The day after the meeting, the media finally received official written notice of the meeting. It was part of the weekly school board summary, issued by the school-community relations office. The summary was dated September 5, the day the retreat began.
The delay in getting the message out may have been the reason that only two outsiders attended the retreat, this reporter and a Washington Post photographer. Which brings us to some questions we have been asking ourselves for the last week and a half.
Why did a reporter have so much difficulty in persuading some school officials to provide information about a public meeting being held at taxpayer expense by a public body?
Why, for instance, was no written notice of the retreat given to the press -- until it was over?
Why was the retreat not included in a list of school events -- until it was over?
Why didn't the school-community relations office have more than the sketchiest details about the retreat?
Some school officials were acutely aware of the difficulties the press had in learning about the meeting, and school board members themselves were open with information about the retreat.
Superintendent L. Linton Deck, who is beginning his first full year with the school system, made a particular effort at the retreat to give the two press members full information. School board Chairman Ann P. Kahn emphasized that minutes and tapes of the retreat would be available to all citizens at the school administration building on Page Avenue in Fairfax.
But those apparently sincere efforts to provide as much information as possible were overshadowed by the attitude of some school officials the week before the meeting opened.
As reporters, we are trained to get information -- by calling as many people as needed, by asking question after question, by checking and double checking.
But for the public, which may be unaccustomed to threading through the bureaucracy, getting that information could have been more difficult. In fact, the office most citizens are urged to call for information about school matters had little to say about the retreat.
"I don't have anything to do with it, thank goodness," George Hamel, director of the school-community relations office, told a reporter last week.
Eventually, most of the information we sought was provided, although it often was given grudgingly. Some administration officials even found it necessary, at least with this reporter, to question whether the reporter really wanted to attend the meeting.
"You're going to go all that way down there [to the retreat]?" one school official asked."That's a long drive you know."
Getting accurate figures about the cost of the weekend was even more difficult.
"What are you going to do, get all worked up about how much this thing is costing?" asked Hamel, who added that he had no idea what the retreat would cost.
Mary Ann Lecos, a school administrator who made some arrangements for the retreat, was asked how much total costs for the weekend would be.
"Airlie's rates are public information. $42.50 per person, double occuancy," she replied. "Actually Airlie's a real bargain."
When a reporter remarked that this was extremely inexpensive for the weekend, Lecos said that was why Airlie was selected.
In a story last week, the Post stated that, based on Lecos' figures, costs for the weekend accommodations would total about $850. At last week's school board meeting, Lecos made a pointed reference to the fact that the total cost as reported by The Post was incorrect.
Strangely enough, Lecos never requested a correction.
No wonder, since Lecos didn't bother to explain that the rates she quoted were not for the weekend, but for each day, and that no board member would be staying in a double occupancy room. Single occupany rates at Airlie are $52.50 per person per day which brings the total cost of the retreat to about $1,500, almost twice as much as our original estimate.
But the cost is relatively insignificant. The crucial question, it seems to us, is the public's right to know when and where its public officials are meeting -- before they meet.
The attitude of some school officials -- hedging on facts and feigning ignorance of details -- cast suspicion over the entire meeting.
For those of you who missed last weekend's retreat (which is nearly everyone in the county), the school board didn't do anything wrong. In fact, the meetings, except for two executive sessions to discusss legal and personnel matters, were completely open to the public, sessions were tape-recorded and minutes were kept.
But the public was not there, and that was regrettable.
The retreat offered an opportunity to hear wide-ranging discussions among board members and school officials about the strengths and weaknesses of the nation's 10th largest school district.
Perhaps the public didn't come because it didn't know it was invited.