EDITORIAL MUG: Editorial art

The Maryville R-II Board of Education and district administrators have so far decided not to publicly elaborate on the factors that led to the postponement of Maryville High School’s production of “Legally Blonde The Musical” last week, or to explain why district officials seemingly went to considerable lengths to ensure no one would be around to hear them discuss it during what amounted to a private school board meeting.

But it’s not too late to set the kind of example of accountability and transparency we all strive to set for the future leaders that walk the halls of MHS.

The musical follows the same broad strokes as the 2001 movie of the same name: Elle Woods, a stereotypical blonde sorority girl who wears a lot of pink, likes to look good, and always wears a broad smile, enrolls in Harvard Law School. There, she shows the many, many people who doubt her because of her appearance that she is smart and talented, all the while making friends who also have their own stereotypes to overcome.

No, it’s not ridiculous that a school administrator would look to head off parent complaints over material they think might prove controversial. But even if, like Superintendent Becky Albrecht, you believe that some parts of “Legally Blonde” are inappropriate for the audience she would like to attend the performances, the manner in which Superintendent Albrecht and the board have handled the issue is outrageous.

As usual, the school board met in open session on Nov. 17, and discussed the business of the district. Also as usual, the open session was followed by a closed session.

But unusually, The Forum learned hours later, the closed session had been followed by an unscheduled open session — held solely to discuss Superintendent Albrecht’s concerns over material in the musical she evidently found to be objectionable.

In that meeting, during which no votes were taken, Superintendent Albrecht said she received “input” from board members — elected representatives of the community who should be eager to engage in an important discussion like this in full view of their peers who expected them to shoulder the responsibility of this public service as honestly and transparently as possible.

Yet, none of the elected public servants on the school board felt a pang of accountability strong enough to explain to the people of the school district, or the students themselves, exactly why they had decided to at least go along with, if not take part in, a willful deception of the public so that they could discuss privately why they thought the product the students were prepared to perform wasn’t appropriate for public consumption.

A phrase like “willful deception” is not one we take lightly when it comes to public officials. But what other explanation are we left with?

By all indications, a willful deception is exactly what it was. There is no possible reason — none — why the discussion about the musical could not have taken place in regular open session. Instead, Superintendent Albrecht did not even attempt to explain why the talk was held after closed session, only offering an excuse that it was never put on an agenda — including during the meeting itself, as required by law — because it came up too “last-minute.”

The entire debacle is deeply insulting to the school district’s constituents — taxpayers, parents, staff and students alike. How could not a single member of the board object to such an obvious attempt to keep public discussions behind closed doors? How could not a single member of the board feel the responsibility of their office in the days afterward to fully explain the episode?

We urge board members to rectify their mistake and live up to their promise to serve the public by calling a special board session as soon as possible to explain themselves and invite public comment.

Until then, the silence from our elected officials and the people charged with our children’s education remains deafening. Serving the public on the school board requires accountability and a sense of responsibility. Each and every member of the board should think long and hard about whether they are meeting that standard — with every decision they make, and every discussion they have.

We guarantee they won’t be the only ones.

Of course, since they have not seen fit to share with the public, we don’t know precisely what Superintendent Albrecht and the board found so offensive that they could not possibly allow the students to go on the stage the next night.

Through people close to the production, though, The Forum learned that the concerns are largely as one might expect: some female cast members’ costumes were too tight or too short, some colorful language wasn’t fit to be heard on a high school stage and at least one song — in which characters wonder if a man “is gay or European?” — will be cut entirely. 

In the classroom or in the hallways of MHS, some of those things might not be appropriate, it’s true. And maybe — though again, we can only speculate — that played some part in not wanting to allow students on stage to do or say things that would normally earn them a reprimand if said during school.

But art is different — greater than the sum of its parts. Art is its own classroom, with its own rules, and teaches in its own ways.

We want our students to be a part of making art for so many reasons. We want them to be able to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. We want them to be exposed to new ideas, from new places with new people, and help to express those thoughts, feelings and ideas in creatively constructive ways.

And part of it is also for us. We want to see them follow their passions. We want them to succeed, to be a part of something, express something, create something in a way that we never knew they could.

In high school plays, that means, occasionally, we will watch our children do things or say things we might never do or say. We see them become someone we never knew they could be, and we see sides of them we never knew they had — maybe even ones we can’t begin to understand. And when the curtain goes down, even though we may have turned up our eyebrow a few times, who could look at their child’s part in a performance like that and not be proud?

Evidently, when Superintendent Albrecht saw the musical, and when school board members were told about it, all they could see were short dresses, words like “slut” and a song that was just a little too gay for comfort.

If only there were some way to demonstrate the idea that just because someone dresses, talks or acts in a way you aren’t familiar with, or that makes you uncomfortable, that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth listening to.

Maybe a musical.