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COMMUNITY VOICE: In defense of the school board

By Cheryl Watts

A trustee pretty much has a thankless job. 

I’m an avid newspaper reader, so I read not only the newsworthy reports of the school board meetings and related articles on local and state issues relative to our schools, but I also read the letters concerned and/or disgruntled citizens write. I realize that these folks usually have a specific issue on their minds, or perhaps a decision made by the board affected a relative or friend working at a specific school or in a specific job at that school. 

We all must keep in mind that these eight trustees, along with all the teachers, office personnel and other personnel all have one primary goal: to provide the very best education possible for the school system’s 5,600 plus students.

This includes consideration of every age group, every subject studied, every achievement level of every age group, every state requirement, every safety issue, every personnel issue, every sports concern, every extracurricular issue, every building that needs repair, every…oh well, you get the idea. 

And to make it all interesting, they have to come up with a budget to do all this with limited funds that just can’t be stretched to cover all the necessities. 

Imagine the time invested by the trustees in order to accomplish all this – marathon board meetings ending at 11 p.m. or later, plus called meetings to cover student and staff personnel issues. Then there’s time spent educating themselves on the issues, time spent in workshops and conferences at the state level, etc. 

Some trustees who are able to regularly visit the schools, both during school hours and at sports and other special events and meetings after school hours. 

How much citizen support do these folks get? 

Although I don’t attend all school board meetings, as I should, I go enough to know that few people actually attend the meetings in relation to the number of people who should have a vested interest. 

In the past couple of years, and especially now with elections coming up, I’ve come to realize at the actual meetings and through letters to the newspapers, how little consideration and appreciation is given to the school board. 

That being said, I would like to comment on some of the issues the trustees have faced (with or without the citizens actual knowledge of such:)

 

The lunch money issue

It’s been addressed but keeps popping up, as recently as a late September letter in the papers. This should be a non-issue. It certainly shouldn’t be an issue blamed on the school, the principal or the school board. 

Parents and their children have options. There is no reason a child should go without lunch. You can pay for your child’s lunch or you can pack your child’s lunch. If needed you can qualify for reduced price lunches or free lunches. There is no reason that someone besides the parent should be responsible for seeing that their child has lunch. Have a checklist if necessary, does my child have his clothes on, does he have his homework, and does he have his money for his lunch? 

Unless a parent makes a habit of not providing for his child’s lunch, I’m sure that observant teachers have on occasion paid for a lunch. If so, did you reimburse them? 

The younger the child, the more diligent the parent should be on the issue. 

 

This year’s new transportation plan 

Parents brought concerns to the attention of the superintendent and trustees (mostly without the ranting and raving). Discussion ensued, and changes were made. This is how things should progress, right?

 

Recent salary adjustments 

Recent salary adjustments were made when it was discovered that some salaries were not in alignment with those of peers who had the same qualification and years of experience. 

There were questions about what to do about it. Some people said it would be bad for morale to make those changes. I understand that a few people were making less than they should have. Who would not want this corrected? 

There were more who were being paid more than they should have been. Perhaps this was accidental, or perhaps it was the result of favoritism of some sort. The worst thing in the world for morale is having this discovery made known to those peers who haven’t been making the higher amount. 

In either case, why would it be wrong to correct an inequity? It couldn’t be done in a one-sided manner. If you raise the pay for those who deserve it and make no correction in those who have been overpaid, you will be responsible for continuing an injustice for as long as those people are in the school system. They would continue to get raises on what they have already been overpaid, the same rate of raise as those making their current rate of pay. 

If their peers were not aware of this inequity, they certainly would have been after all the salaries were listed in the paper this year. I was in the school system for 15 years, and I can attest to the fact that all of those peers would have definitely had morale issues.

 

Changes/adjustments in personnel 

Changes and adjustments in personnel was an issue that was addressed in letters to the editors in both newspapers in July illustrating just how hard, yet how necessary, some trustee decisions are. 

The writer was incensed that secretaries’ contracts at the Early Learning Center had been reduced from 12 months to 10-1/2 months. Not only was the writer not fully informed about the justification of the action (in my opinion), but the tone of the letters and the accusations aimed at the trustees were certainly not conducive to anything constructive in nature. 

The South Boston ELC serves 93 students, and the Cluster Springs ELC serves 79 students, whereas the number served at the elementary schools ranges from 193 up to 751. The high school and middle school serve 1,667 and 1,255 respectively (figures published at the start of the 2013-14 school year). 

It is my understanding that Sinai Elementary (278 students) lost one of its two very competent long-time secretaries because of low enrollment. She was transferred to another school where a secretary was needed. I’m sure she didn’t choose to be transferred, but the decision was based on numbers. With this in mind, how could schools whose enrollment is 93 and 79 justify 12-month secretaries? Their workload would certainly be significantly smaller than Sinai’s. 

Contrary to what the writer said, the secretaries were not “robbed of all the raises they had received.” I’m pretty sure it would not be standard procedure to pay for days not worked. 

Contrary to what another writer said, these employees were not “demoted.” The writer also closed by asking taxpayers to “beware:  What schools and employees will get the hatchet next year?” 

I would question the validity of keeping a school building open providing teachers, secretary, janitorial service, food services, electricity, heat and air for 79 students. 

Would the writer close the smallest elementary school (Clays Mill at 193 serves almost 2-1/2 times as many students at Cluster Springs ELC)? 

Decisions are harder to make when you have to balance the needs of everyone within the confines of a budget. To question that some trustees were “vindictive’ in their decisions indicates to me that the writer does not attend nearly enough school board meetings and is very much unaware of the countless hours spent by the trustees in due diligence so that wise and timely decisions can be made. I find that they work extremely hard to do their best for each school and its students.

 

LORP 

I don’t pretend to know all of the intricacies of this plan. It’s my understanding that the LORP participants were aware the program could be discontinued at any time, if it was no longer in the best interest of the school system to continue. I was never able to understand how it saved money for the system. The pay per day was $65 for a substitute teacher, but if that spot was filled by a teacher who retired at $50,000 a year, he or she would be paid $500 for the day and would be paid $500 for each day he substituted, up to 20 days a year for up to seven years. 

How about the retirees who were not teachers? Some made significantly more than classroom teachers and would earn much more per day for their 20 days per year, and what did they do? We certainly don’t want the halls of central office full of “consultants” do we? 

In theory, I could understand The Gazette’s editorial stand on the LORP controversy, suggesting that it be offered one more year and that would be the last year. 

However, if the system saved $1.4 million in 2012-13, how would the budget have been balanced if that money had gone into LORP? What programs would have had to be cut to achieve a balanced budget. 

Several trustees said the LORP vote was one of the most difficult they had made during their time on the board, saying, “The needs of the children have to come first.”

Our superintendent and school board members, though not always able to provide everything the citizen’s want, deserve interest plus support from the public on an on-going basis. They need input on issues or new ideas on accomplishing goals. Even valid criticism is a form of support. 

Although having differing viewpoints on issues, I have never had a school board member not willing to discuss an issue with me. 

I encourage the re-election of Kim Farson (my representative), Fay Satterfield and Karen Hopkins. They have been diligent in preparing themselves to do the work necessary. They have been good stewards of taxpayer money, and they have done what their constituents wanted, especially in regard to money and streamlining central office. 

Their adversaries have promised many things, but they cannot deliver what they cannot pay for. They would still have to work within the budget.

 

Watts lives in Halifax.

 

(Disclaimer: Please do not blame the school board for any misrepresentations you feel have been made, it’s all on me.)