Committee system holds promise for school board

info@islandpacket.comFebruary 10, 2013 

The Beaufort County school board spends a lot more time debating how it should operate than other locally elected bodies.

No doubt, the school district's big budget and critical mission make it important to come up with a system that balances board oversight with allowing district employees to do their jobs without undue interference.

Efforts over the past decade have missed the mark, and board chairman Bill Evans is right to raise the issue again. His suggestion to establish standing committees to address broad areas of district operations is a good one. The committee system has worked well for Beaufort County Council and Hilton Head Island's Town Council.

The system allows council members to delve into specific issues and vet ideas before they are brought to the full council. Council meetings don't get bogged down in unnecessary minutiae, but there is still an opportunity for council members -- and the public -- to learn more about a particular subject and debate public policy.

Evans has proposed five committees -- community outreach and legislative advocacy; curriculum and instruction; finance and operations; human resources; and student services. Those certainly hit all the major points. The committees would gather input from teachers and administrators (and we would hope the public) and prepare recommendations for the full board.

The board has already created two committees -- finance and operations, and legislative advocacy. Community outreach would be added to the latter.

The response this past week from fellow board members was understandable. Some wanted more time to consider committee parameters. But others wanted to wait until a new superintendent has been hired.

The board should not wait. It is not the superintendent's job to set up how the board operates; it is the superintendent's job to carry out the policies and goals set by the board. One of the complaints about the board's current "governance" system is that it cedes too much authority to the superintendent.

As for that governance system, which was adopted in 2008, Evans and other board members have said they want to look at that, too.

Its premise is that the board sets broad policy and academic goals while the superintendent carries out the policies and runs the district.

That's as it should be. The balancing act comes in making sure the school board, which is ultimately responsible for what happens in our schools, isn't left in the dark about important district decisions.

The first "policy governance" system, adopted in 2000, was a mess, in part because of its nonsensical nomenclature that left everyone, including board members, wondering what was going on. Reading a board agenda in those days was like trying to read a foreign language.

But beyond that, it resulted in school board members not adequately reviewing multimillion-dollar contracts with construction management firms before approving them and board members being turned away when they sought information about the district's building program. It required a majority vote by board members to get information from the superintendent.

Board members also were told to "speak with one voice." That concept is older than policy governance and never holds up because it simply can't work in a democratic process. Board members have a responsibility to represent their constituents and to follow their conscience.

In 2006, the board adopted new policies that called on the superintendent to provide more details on finances and construction projects. And in 2008, the board adopted policy governance's cousin, "strategic governance."

That brings us to today. More than anything else, we need a dose of common sense when it comes to the relationship between the school board and the superintendent. Most importantly, board members and the superintendent need to remember who works for whom.

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