12/17/04 — Schools: Mr. Commissioner, meet Ms. Education Board Member

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Schools: Mr. Commissioner, meet Ms. Education Board Member

It’s said that we can pick our friends, but we can’t pick our families. Still, we need to get along with our families, especially if we live in the same household.

Likewise, while we can pick our friends, members of the Board of Commissioners can’t pick members of the Board of Education, or vice versa. Still, they need to get along.

Enmity between them is divisive and destructive. It spreads in the community, and it prevents the two boards from working together as they should.

Tuesday evening the two boards got together. What they accomplished was not substantial, but the gathering did produce one astonishing comment. Commissioner John Bell, bemoaning the direction of the conversation, mentioned that it was the first conference between the two boards that he had attended — meaning that it has been more than four years since the commissioners and school board have gotten together.

This meeting was way overdue.

The commissioners had offered the school board the services of a consultant to advise the school system in several financial areas. Bell, and undoubtedly some of his commissioner colleagues, were disappointed that most school board members didn’t accept the offer with enthusiasm.

The school board would be in an awkward position if the consultant made recommendations that it opposed but the commissioners favored. Still, school board member Rick Pridgen said he would be glad to use the consultant if it would help bring the two boards together on the school system’s needs.

Some of those needs, referred to as the “facilities plan” in governmentese, have caused too much contention.

Some commissioners, along with City Council members, decry the lack of diversity in the inner-city schools, and the school board is usually blamed for it. On the other hand, school board members note that housing patterns, along with the removal of many white children by their parents, have helped resegregate those schools.

This month, the commissioners made a proposition similar to one that had been proposed by others in the community: Assemble a blue ribbon panel to form a 15-year plan for the school system. Call it the 20-20 Vision Committee because it will carry the schools to the year 2020. And, in the course of drafting a building program, let it find a solution to what many regard as the city schools “problem.”

Tuesday night’s discussion didn’t progress as far as the 20-20 idea, but some on the school board are cool to it because they feel that it tends to usurp their responsibility. Some have also defended the city schools as having improved little by little over the last few years.

Moreover, school board members like the idea of “community” schools, whereas dispersing pupils to improve racial balance would involve busing.

In the end, school board members agreed to a meeting with the financial consultant. That doesn’t mean they will use him, but the idea is still alive.

And what about the 20-20 question? That has yet to be answered. If its only purpose is to improve the image of the schools without improving education, forget it. But if its purpose would be to find the optimal plan to educate every child, it would be worthwhile.

In any case, such a committee surely would have to be composed of impartial people with no predispositions, people who would be willing to look objectively at every possibility, even the status quo.

Tuesday night’s meeting of the two boards may not have been a lovefest, but it was a start.

The nature of the relationship of the boards is this: The school board decides what’s best for the schools, and the commissioners decide whether they will pay, out of our tax money, for what the school board requests. That is a relationship that demands open, direct communication, and the two boards should get together again soon.

The more they talk frankly, the better they will understand one another, and the quicker they will come to understand that there are good intentions on each of the boards.

Published in Editorials on December 17, 2004 9:04 AM