A Tough Choice Between Conscience and Heart

The meeting of the Kennebunk, Maine, Board of School Directors is called to order. The agenda lists the name of Sally, a high school senior who is a skilled athlete, a runner who has set high goals for herself.

When she stands confidently before us - nine elected directors and an auditorium of about 20 citizens - she reads from a written outline her carefully reasoned request for $250 for a trip to Wyoming to compete in an AAU track meet. A good showing in that

contest will aid her future college career in track events, give her national recognition, and direct attention to our high school.

The only kicker in the outline is that this athletic contest has no connection to our school programs. We are not sending this student there as a representative of our high school, nor does this have a part in our athletic budget. Sally is before us asking for public funds - district money - to pay her way to this meet.

The debate begins. I listen to both sides. The majority favor giving her the money. She is a good student and a promising runner - a good showing will give publicity to our 500-student high school.

But, two men on the board differ. They state succinctly that we're not authorized to give public money to fund a private endeavor. Case closed is their analysis. I listen hard and concede the logic of their arguments. But I look at Sally - as she looks at me - and think of the small-town connections I have with her family. Most of all, I'm swayed by the fact she is a classmate and close friend of my son.

The 15-minute debate stops and the vote is taken. There's no written ballot here - just a very public show of hands. My hand rises with the majority of six. In concealed turmoil, I'm wishing a secret ballot would allow me to vote my conscience instead of my heart.

The other two vote 'no,' and Sally gets her money by a vote of 7 to 2. My conscience and I leave the meeting, and we wrestle for the next few hours.

How do I rectify my mistake? Is it really a mistake? Do I keep silent to keep from losing face with a friend? Or do I take steps to point out the error of my vote? After all, even if we reconsider and take another vote, it would still come out in Sally's favor. Only the count would differ - 6 to 3 instead, and Sally could still have her trip.

Mercifully, a simple idea comes to me. I write her a personal note explaining my dilemma and admit that I voted erroneously, against my better judgment. I explain that the arguments against giving the money follow the honest standard we were elected to uphold. I close by telling Sally that the contents of the letter are between us and I'll never make them public.

My conscience is eased.

End of story? Not quite.

Two weeks later Sally is back before the board again. This time, without explanation, she tells us she has changed her mind, will not take the funds, and intends to raise the money privately.

In Wyoming, she makes a good run for her money.

* Mary Folsom, a retired elementary school teacher, was a school board member in Kennebunk, Maine, in the early 1980s.

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