Henderson School Board II: The Solution

By Bill O’Connor –

I invited a colorful new resident to join me at the recent School System accreditation review. We agreed on what the value was of the having one group of educators passing judgment on others who will later reverse roles. But his comment on the program was: “An incestuous California Cluster Kiss.”

Two weeks ago we began here to discuss (available at https://usmedia.buzz/2012/10/22/lets-solve-henderson-countys-education-shortfalls/ or www.District_5.livejournal.com) the problems with the School Board system centering on student outcomes. Now let’s talk some specifics on the money.

The SB is, as always, short of money because; the 15% increase in the County’s share of funding is only at the FY2011 level. In 2011 the SB oversaw the adding of about $4,000,000 of the $21 plus million county allocation, to the $3,000,000 plus already in the school system fund balance (reserves), while the county had a budget shortfall of over $3,000,000. Does it make sense to move money from the County reserves to SB.s?

State law requires the County to build schools and to give them to the SB and the Administration headed by Superintendent David Jones. The County clearly has need to, if prudent, accumulate a large amount of money for doing such building. The school system has no such needs. They need only supply an annual budget request to the county.

The fact is, there is no purpose for a fund balance of more than $7 plus million, particularly in the face of the parents being required to pay bus fare for their children’s activities, and teachers required to buy their classroom supplies, even though, curiously, the school budget has over $1,700,000 (about $2,000 per teacher) budgeted for classroom supplies. In candor, a high-ranking administrator may admit that their fund balance is to protect the salaries of the hundreds of excess administrators in case of local budget cuts. It is the proper role of the SB to oversee and question this sort of thing – they don’t.

It should fall then to the Board of Commissioners to oversee. It takes three votes to implement any serious oversight and the Mr.’s Jones, Bazzle, and Wood, and Ms. Corn know this. So the secondary role of the extra administrators comes to the fore; lobbying for more money; money to be saved and used to hire more unneeded administrators. That is, using personal and business connections, or just the “let’s keep quiet and go along with each other because nobody else really cares” attitude to prevent corrupt spending and management practices from scrutiny. It is true that people willing to do public work will meet each other in many places with many kinds of roles and relationships.

The temptation to “scratch each other’s back” and the pressure to go along is powerful but, when charged with a public trust, must be put aside. This is asking a lot of human nature, but that is exactly what a public trust is and demands. If one cannot manage a public trust in the public interest, one should not offer to serve. One’s personal needs or desires must absolutely be secondary to the public trust. We must demand it of those who offer for service to their community.

Only a few thousand Henderson county citizens compose what we might call the ‘community of service’. We wish there were more. People are drawn to community service for many reasons always including personal satisfaction. But what all of them need to keep at the top of their list is that they must always act for the particular group served, And always remember the 100,000 other private citizens who choose to or can only act privately, and depend on those who serve to watch out for them too. If one ever hears someone complaining, be sure to tell them how their service can make the difference they want.

Does that ask a lot of our nature as people? You bet it does! But that is what makes it ‘service’; doing the right thing when no one is watching. Doing it for people who don’t have the time or inclination to serve, but expect the service community to do its duty in the most efficient as well as the most effective way.

These principles apply to elected officials or volunteers and as we said two weeks ago in the first installment it is very much better to deliberately seek out successful people from backgrounds different than the organization being served. One gets a competitive spirit from the private sector, a different point of view form other public sector experience, and fresh ideas from each.

It is clear that if a teacher steps out of the classroom onto the SB, she has nothing to add to the conversation that she has already, or should have, contributed before. But if one comes from say, United Way, one brings a different point of view that is likely to be fresh and positive. Coming from the private sector is more complicated. It has been tried in often with varying degrees of sucess.

One thing that has seldom been tried is to bring private business people to sit at the table with the SB members, much as Superintendent Jones does, as active participants, treated in every way as members, but having no vote. Month in and month out both sides begin to see the other’s challenges in ways unexpected by each. I was a part of an experiment similar to this at the South Carolina Tax Commission and the results were phenomenal, the changes shocking, and the new services provided to taxpayers unheard of for the time.

Our advice to the new School Board, whatever its makeup, is to seek out ways to bring in some help from outside the school system. The makeup is important though and in Henderson County, vital to productive change. I know Mr. Bazzle (we shared numerous private meals together), Mr. Wood, and Ms. Corn well through my work on the County Commission. I have interviewed those challengers willing to meet, and looked into the backgrounds of the others. I found that each is tied to the school system either personally, through family ties, by recent graduation, or by friendship or acquaintance with School System/SB people.

The best chance for change is to choose a slate of three to replace the incumbents and the open seat, and to disseminate the choices. Next cycle we will discuss finding non-school connected citizens, in the meantime here is our slate:

Sonia Gironda, an NGO leader with wide connections to school system members,

Josh Houston, a banker with a teacher wife, and

Charles Thomas, a former teacher and Principal here, in Union County, and in Tennessee. Voting for three only concentrates votes and gives a better chance of unseating incumbents. If you agree with my prescription, whether you are outside like me, or one of the school system insiders who inspired me to pursue this course, let’s work together intensely to make it happen in the short time left.

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