Jerry Langley, in an interview with the Observer shortly after his election as chairman of the County Commission, emphasized his desire to work to improve the relationship between the school system and the county commissioners. He was not specific about what he sees needs to achieved to produce a more productive relationship but we would like to offer some suggestions for not only his consideration but the consideration of an "agenda for discussion" between the school board and county commissioners.
First and foremost, there is a need for better fiscal reporting by the school board to the county commissioners. That includes both capital outlay (buildings, equipment, maintenance) and current expense (operating expense). Some movement has been made on this, but as Al Klemm observed last night (12-8-09), quite a bit more needs to be done. It is going to become even more important as budgets struggle in a down economy, a concern expressed by Langley.
Second, and closely associated, there needs to be a better facilities planning process put in place that includes a collaborative process of priority setting by the joint boards. This business of one or two school board members manipulating a list of projects that are "presented" to the commissioners for funding needs to be replaced by a systematic planning process that includes a preventative maintenance component to insure that the new facilities built with bond funds are not allowed to deteriorate and older existing facilities are preserved and upgraded as much as practical. Spending most of the capital outlay on pet projects of individual school board members needs to be replaced with a comprehensive and ongoing assessment of all facilities and joint prioritizing of those needs.
Thirdly, the county commissioners, as the party responsible for funding the schools, should have a prayer meeting with the school board about how much should be spent on legal fees. We have been spending entirely too much on lawyers and that money comes directly out of the classroom. It would be cheaper to hire a fulltime lawyer than what we have been doing and that would be ridiculous. "Preventive legal planning" should replace "we don't have any choice since we've been sued." Hopefully the new superintendent will be well trained in School Law and will not have rely on expensive per hour legal advice so much. Perhaps the county could share legal services with the school system. But it is crazy to hire a local lawyer and then hire another big shot law firm in Raleigh.
Fourthly, closely associated with #3 is the need to revisit the "Interlocal Agreement," better known as the "Chickengate Areement." Strange as it may sound coming from us, because we have severely criticized the current/amended agreement, we think it should be extended when it expires. But that extension should not be simply a guarantee of money to the school system but a truly collaborative planning process that provides for multi-year fiscal planning based on specific outcomes (performance based outcomes, starting with reducing the dropout rate and improving student performance, particularly of our best and brightest students).
Fifth, and in spite of the complaint by the school board chairman that the commissioners (Hood) are trying to micromanage the school system we have to say it is sorely needed because the school board is not getting the job done. The first step must be to correct the problem in School Food Service. It is losing over a hundred thousand dollars a year and will soon be bankrupt. Guess who will have to bail it out. That debacle has already robbed the classrooms of over a million dollars and the school board has no more idea today what the problem is than the man in the moon does. They have been derelict on this and the commissioners are duty bound to step in and correct the mess.
Finally, the biggest scandal in Beaufort County is the personnel system in the school system. And because the county commissioners appropriate tons of money for personnel they have, in all due respect to Mr. Belcher, not only the right but the duty to see that taxpayer money is spent on a personnel system that is fair and equitable to all school employees and to the taxpayers. The current system is a scandal. And minority educators are the worst victims but certainly not the only victims. The Eastern Case proved that.
The major imperative for the school board and commissioners is to come up with a modern systematic personnel management system that insures that agreed upon objectives of the system are supported by the personnel recruitment, screening, selection, promotion, retention and reward system that is governed by sound policies that are transparent and accountable.
No, the commissioners should not get into individual personnel decisions. Their job is to see that a sound system exists that supports the accountable expenditure of public funds. The school board should also not get involved in individual personnel decisions as they have been doing. Their primary job is to see that the personnel system operates according to a sound set of policies.
This school board spends as much time hiding in secret meetings as it does in open meetings and way, way more time picking and choosing "winners and losers" in the job lottery than they do on improving student learning. The commissioners should refuse to fund a feudal (some would call it a Plantation) system that is driving away our best educators. We will never be able to attract and retain the best teachers and particularly the best administrators unless we have a credible personnel system based on integrity.
Again, the commissioners should not substitute their judgment in individual personnel situations. But they should insure that an appropriate system is in place to insure that taxpayer monies are being spent to accomplish the goals that the school board and commissioners agree upon for the school system. There is no more important imperative than to put an end to "that's a personnel matter and we can't discuss it..." BS that we now get from our school board and the former superintendent.
Mr. Langley, you are exactly correct in identifying improving the partnership between the county and the school system. That is one of the biggest money pots the commissioners manage and it has been done exceedingly poorly. We hope you are successful in changing that. Good luck!
Delma Blinson writes the "Teacher's Desk" column for our friend in the local publishing business: The Beaufort Observer
. His concentration is in the area of his expertise - the education of our youth. He is a former teacher, principal, superintendent and university professor.