The Salt Lake City School District needs to be more forthcoming with the exact details of how and why district personnel came to decide it was necessary to confiscate cafeteria food from students whose lunch accounts were in arrears, and until it does, the effects of bad publicity and anxiety among constituents will linger.

A step in the right direction might be to commission an independent audit, which the district’s board is considering. A separate consideration to hire an outside public relations firm to help with image problems the district has brought upon itself seems less circumspect. Those image problems exist in large part because the district has yet to bring forth full disclosure of just who decided to take the action, under whose supervision and under what policies that might suggest such action was somehow appropriate.

It is, and has been, a simple matter of basic accountability. Apologies and a promise that it won’t happen again are not sufficient to allay legitimate public concern on why it happened in the first place. Somewhere in the chain of command, someone made an error in judgment, either by allowing such a policy to be implemented or by taking action outside the bounds of a clear policy. In either event, the district has seemed reluctant to admit to that basic and obvious fact.

The School Board’s decision to consider an outside audit is a tacit admission that the district is either unwilling or unable to bring accountability onto itself, despite the promise to conduct a complete investigation. But whether it comes as a result of an internal or external examination, a full public vetting is the only way the district can hope to get past a quagmire of suspicion and bad publicity.

The controversy has cast a pall over the operations of the entire city school system, which is unfortunate due to the district’s long record of competently managing the business of public education in Salt Lake City.

Any public relations professional hired by the school board would certainly point out that the root of public anxiety over this issue is the fact that the actions at Uintah Elementary School were calloused and heavy-handed. Those served by the district need assurance that such an attitude is not an underlying ethic at district headquarters, and that the district is indeed capable of policing itself against a recurrence.

Whether or not it decides to turn to an independent auditor, the Salt Lake City School Board’s top priority should be to help restore public confidence in district operations, and to do so as quickly as possible.