The Beaufort County Board of Education faces big decisions soon -- possible changes to attendance zones, curriculum for two new Bluffton schools, how best to promote school choice within the district.
These issues might be settled with votes of the full board on the first and third Tuesdays of every month, but lots of the research and discussions will taking place elsewhere.
Last spring, the school board adopted a committee structure to gather input and advise the full board on curriculum, finance and personnel issues.
"Committee meetings are really where the exchanges take place now," said board member JoAnn Orischak, co-chairwoman of the Legislative Advocacy and Community Outreach Committee.
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The changes have stoked deeper discussions among board members but also have raised concerns about the public's ability to contribute to and keep up with those discussions.
"We need to shine a light on these committee meetings to let the community know this is how it's being done now," Orischak said. "This is a new structure, and it hasn't been done this way in the past."
Until this year, the board had moved away from the committee structure. Former board Chairman Fred Washington disbanded them several years ago, saying they no longer focused on setting policies but had devolved into micromanagement of district staff. But before he lost his bid for reelection last year, Washington said he planned to bring some committees back.
"I think it's a logical and appropriate approach," Washington said recently. "It strengthens the board's policy-making capacity and helps in what directions to go with the policies."
The system will work if board members don't try to run the district's daily operations, Washington said. Current board Chairman Bill Evans emphasized the same point when he advocated a return of committees last February.
Each board member is co-chairman of one committee and must serve on at least one other. Evans and superintendent Jeffrey Moss serve as nonvoting, ex-officio members on all of the committees.
Moss said the structure allows the district and board to address issues and complete tasks efficiently.
Evans said the committees are working well.
"... I think our conversations are much more in-depth now," Evans said. "I think that the board has better informed itself by the questions it asks and because of conversations it can have."
The structure also has shortened the length of the board's regular meetings, which now tend to include fewer in-depth discussions, Evans said.
However, Evans said he wants to ensure the community knows those discussions are still taking place, at the committee meetings, and that the public is invited to listen and comment during those meetings. Committees are subject to the same open-meeting and notice laws as the full board, according to the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.
Mary Johnson, a resident who has attended one Student Services Committee meeting, said the board needs to do a better job of notifying the public of the meetings' dates, times, places and agendas.
"These discussions are done in these small meetings, and then they come to board meetings with recommendations already made, and I think that is something that needs to be addressed," she said. "The public really needs exposure ahead of time, so we can attend the meetings and make a solid decision or presentation to them."
Evans said it also is important for board members -- even if not serving on the committee -- to attend as many meetings as possible to stay up-to-date and involved in the discussions.
Beaufort County Council, which also uses committees, has had problems with that in the past, council Chairman Paul Sommerville said. He said council started offering stipends as an inducement to attendance.
School board committee members receive $50, plus mileage reimbursement, for attending their assigned meetings, Evans said. Board members who attend a meeting but don't serve on the committee get only the mileage compensation.
The committee structure is a common one, said Phillip Young, department chairman of Education Leadership at the University of South Carolina. He said the committees allow for the division of responsibilities, but the ultimate decision and authority lie with the full board.
Orischak said the committees have helped the school board accomplish a lot in recent months.
"This is the new direction," she said. "And I think it's a good direction."
Follow reporter Sarah Bowman at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.