01/15/07 — Chairwoman questioning attendance

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Chairwoman questioning attendance

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on January 15, 2007 1:58 PM

Board of Education chairwoman Shirley Sims suggested recently that there has been "outside participation" during the process to create a facilities plan, prompting a county commissioner to question the school board's level of interest.

At the last Wayne County board meeting, Ms. Sims praised the school board for its impartiality and added school officials have tried to comply with all the requests made by Evergreen Solutions, a consulting firm hired by the commissioners more than a year ago to assess need in the district.

The Facilities Master Plan Team was formed, comprised of representatives from the school board and county commission. They then tasked three committees with visiting schools and submitting recommendations in the areas of education, facilities and real estate and financing.

The education committee convened twice before the holidays. According to published reports, Wayne County commissioner Jack Best, a member of the master plan team, attended those meetings and commented openly about his impression of the district schools.

Although Ms. Sims did not specifically name Best, she did confirm she knew he had attended the meetings.

"I understand that there's been some outside participation," she said Jan. 8. "We have had people attending these meetings that were not members of the committee. ... We have stayed away from it. We have not attended the meetings and don't plan to."

The Evergreen contract cost the commission about $120,000, Ms. Sims estimated. At that price, "it does not need to come up with a report that's tainted."

Ms. Sims said she could not recall where she had heard the directive, but said she understood that the two boards were "not supposed to have anything to do with talking to other people on the committees or to go to any of the committee meetings."

Best, however, had a different point of view.

"I was not told that I could not go," he said Friday.

"These meetings are probably the most important meetings we're going to have in the county in the next 10 to 15 years. I thought it was very important to be there and to share in the different thoughts of people and encourage people to give their thoughts."

Best said he was "just sorry (Ms. Sims) wasn't at the meetings," noting they were open to anyone with an interest in the educational system of the county.

"Why wasn't every member of the school board participating in those committees, giving their views?" he asked.

The commissioner shrugged off any insinuation that he had stirred the pot by being vocal at the committee meetings.

"I thought my job was to go to the education committee and somebody else would go to the facilities," he said. "I just figured I would take one of the committees."

Suggesting he might be one of the few "brave enough to speak up," Best said other commissioners have also addressed the issues concerning facilities improvements in the district. He denied any animosity toward the board.

"I don't want to get crossways with the school board. The commissioners as a whole are probably more for the school board than they'll even let us be," he said.

The facilities and real estate committee met on Thursday and presented some of their recommendations. Once all the results are compiled and approved by the commission, the school board will have final approval of the facilities plan. The plan will then be submitted to the commission, at which time financing options will be discussed and the financing committee will be activated.

Ms. Sims maintained that it is imperative that the process remain impartial "as we bring it to a closure, that no one can question our integrity."

"When these reports come back to us, we want to be able to take them at face value, realize that we had no input and hopefully these other agencies have had no input. We're very serious about doing all that we can to follow all the guidelines and to do all that we can."

Ms. Sims said she had shared her concerns at the school board meeting in hopes of preventing future problems.

"We want it to be an unbiased presentation to the public, without any input from either commissions or the Board of Education," she said. "We want it to be the people's report, the team's report, not the board nor the commissioners."

Best said his only motive in attending the meetings was to secure the best educational system possible.

Citing a report from 1978 released by the Chamber of Commerce, he said the educational goals for the county at that time were to provide a system that would allow students to reach full academic potential.

"Many graduates were not prepared to enter the workforce," Best said, quoting the report. "This is 30 years ago, and we have got the same damn problems today."

He said the commissioners also have responsibilities when it comes to asking residents to pay for improvements in the schools -- and making sure their money is well-spent.

The commission, he said, still "has a responsibility to the taxpayers, a fiduciary responsibility, to get the system right before we can present it to the taxpayers."