Tuesday, August 20, 2013


When I ask my first-year law students to assess the likely outcome of a case, I urge them to beware of “if” and “unless” statements. Telling me that the plaintiffs will win if they can satisfy the legal requirements isn’t telling me much. What I want to know is: Do you think they’ll satisfy that “if” clause, or not?

I felt similarly about some of the responses that I received to my question about school closures. Some were in the form of “No, unless . . .” or “Yes, but only if . . . .” I understand that candidates can’t always say with certainty how they will address a future issue. But the facilities planning process has been going on for months, and has generated reams of information. The current board felt that it had enough information to reach a conclusion. Are there really school board candidates who are waiting for that one last piece of information that will make all the difference in their vote, and who have no opinion on how they will probably decide?

Sure, candidates, like everyone else, naturally prefer to keep their options open. But voters like that about as much as potential spouses do. There are times when a commitment is a reasonable precondition to a continued relationship. We routinely expect clear stances on important issues from our state and federal candidates. (Answering “I’m not yet sure” to “Will you cut Social Security?” won’t get you very far in politics.) If you’re not willing to take positions on issues – that is, to constrain your freedom to do whatever you please after the election – you’re limiting the voters’ ability to express their preferences through the political system. Clear stances in advance of an election are an important form of transparency.

Many candidates have voiced unqualified support for some aspects of the long-term plan, such as the addition to City High, or the rebuilding of Mann and Longfellow Schools. No “unless” clauses there. For some reason, those issues are easy to figure out, and do not at all require a prudent asterisk.

The current board wanted us to approve the Revenue Purpose Statement before they told us how they’d use the money. (I fell for it.) Now some board candidates want us to give them decision-making power before they tell us how they’ll use that. Once burned, twice shy.

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