Beaufort News

Partnerships offer schools rewards, risks in tight times

In times of lean budgets -- when money is scarce but needs are not -- partnerships with nonprofit groups and other organizations can help the Beaufort County School District meet students' needs, the board of education's chairman says.

But partnerships can entail liability for the district, for example, when non-district employees work in close quarters with schoolchildren.

The challenge, Beaufort County Board of Education chairman Fred Washington Jr. said, is to have enough controls and monitoring in place to provide accountability without stifling the partnership's effectiveness.

"It's systematically defining relationships that can become a win-win for the nonprofit and the school district," Washington said.

The school district has standard requirements for its partner organizations and monitors their compliance, said Jennifer Staton, the district's risk manager. After-school care programs and companies that provide supplemental education services, such as tutoring, must meet minimum insurance requirements to work with the district.

Other conditions customized for each organization are outlined formally in memorandums or contracts, Staton said.

For example, the board recently signed an agreement with a local nonprofit, Neighborhood Outreach Connection, to help improve the academic performance of students in low-income neighborhoods. The group already is operating in Bluffton and on Hilton Head Island and hopes to expand countywide.

Washington said the program is a model of the sort of partnership he wants to see more of.

To protect both parties, the outreach group signed a written memorandum that requires it to perform background checks on any employee or volunteer working with students and collect signed permission forms from the parents of students participating in its programs.

The program also must meet the district's insurance requirements, a typical stipulation in an agreement with a nonprofit group, Staton said. She added that the agreement with the Neighborhood Outreach Connection was modeled on an agreement the district has with the YMCA of Beaufort County, which offers before- and after-school care programs to students.

Neighborhood Outreach Connection will host programs, such as tutoring, for district students in low-income neighborhoods. It has centers at The Oaks Apartments on Hilton Head and at Bluffton House Apartments and plans to expand to other neighborhoods this year.

The school district will help the group identify students who need extra assistance and train tutors.

Narendra Sharma, chairman of the outreach group, said his group agreed to expand its liability coverage to meet the school district's standards. Sharma also said the outreach group has internal controls in place that are not detailed in the agreement.

For instance, the group regulates supervision of students and schedules sessions so multiple student-tutor pairs are meeting in program centers at the same time, he said.

Parents will hold the group accountable for following these procedures, Sharma said. The outreach group encourages parents to visit the centers and meet the tutors and supervisors working with their children.

"I see lots of parents who are fiercely protective of their kids," Sharma said. "That vigilance is very important, as well."