Beaufort News

School improvement councils push improved communication with school board

A group of parents from Shell Point Elementary School wants more face time with Board of Education members -- and, it hopes, greater influence over their decisions.

Now, the parents believe they have a plan to get it.

Their proposal would require school board members to meet four times each year with representatives of the school improvement councils in the geographic areas the members represent. The meetings would be grouped by school cluster: Battery Creek, Beaufort, Bluffton, Hilton Head Island and Whale Branch.

The proposal also requires the superintendent and school board chairman to hold at least two "town hall" meetings per year for SIC members.

"This is our way of ... giving parents and stakeholders more of a role in the decision-making process on the front end of the horse instead of on the tail end," said Shell Point Elementary parent Cathy Emmert, who helped develop the proposal.

The Shell Point parents distributed their plan to principals and SIC chairmen across Beaufort County this month and hope their counterparts at other schools endorse it.

School improvement councils, mandated by state law, are advisory committees of parents, teachers, students and community representatives. They develop and monitor school-improvement plans.

Emmert and other Shell Point parents have attended nearly every Board of Education meeting since November, when the board received a report suggesting the school could be closed because of an anticipated budget shortfall. The parents have opposed that and urged the board to take school closings off the budget-cutting table.

Shell Point parent Adea Humphries, who also helped develop the proposal, said that although it was created by Shell Point parents -- with input from others at Beaufort Middle, Robert Smalls Middle and Beaufort High schools -- the plan is about more than avoiding school closings.

"We don't want this to be about Shell Point," Humphries said. "We don't want it to be about school closures, rezoning or the budget. ... We want there to be a benefit for years to come."

The meetings would unite SICs from different schools and help them see the big picture, instead of only school-level concerns, Humphries said. She said they also would give board members a chance to solicit public support on issues important to them, such as budget negotiations with County Council.

Some board members have said discussions of closing schools are related to County Council's rejection last year of a requested tax hike on non-resident homes and commercial and personal properties to fund the school-operating budget. They said parents didn't lobby council to support the tax increase.

"We want to bond with our school board," Humphries said. "We don't want ever again for them to accuse us of not being involved and not supporting them."

Increasing parental involvement and communication between board members and SICs already have been topics at school board meetings this year.

Chairman Fred Washington Jr. said some of the suggestions in the Shell Point proposal are similar to what he advocates, while others are not. Washington wants to use SICs to increase public involvement rather than forming additional organizations.

He expects the board to consider suggestions from several sources before adopting a formal proposal.

Brad Samuel, chairman of the Beaufort High SIC, agrees the board should be able to rely on SICs for parental participation. But, he said, those groups first need to improve attendance and generate enough involvement to ensure they are carrying out their duties given to them by law.

Attendance is sometimes a problem at SIC meetings, Samuel said. For instance, Beaufort High's SIC couldn't vote on the proposal from Shell Point parents at its last meeting because it didn't have a quorum.

"The communication effort is two ways," he said. "It's not just the school board not communicating with us. We don't communicate with them very well."