03/09/09 — Commission discusses county's role in schools

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Commission discusses county's role in schools

By Steve Herring
Published in News on March 9, 2009 1:46 PM

Education might have been just one of many of topics bandied about by commissioners during their Thursday planning session, but it clearly emerged as the board's top priority.

Not as clear is the route to be taken to address school-related issues and how to better distinguish the lines between the commissioners' and school board's respective authorities and responsibilities.

Meeting facilitator Wanda Sykes of the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service started by asking commissioners to write down their top issues and concerns.

The results covered the gamut from education, to planning, to transportation, to better communication with the county's municipalities.

However, it was education and related topics such as diversification of schools, quality teachers, graduation rates and buildings that generated the longest list.

"Without the best education system we can give our children, the rest of it doesn't make any difference," Commissioner Jack Best said.

Mrs. Sykes told commissioners they have some wonderful ideas, but that they need to make sure someone is accountable.

"You have to decide how much authority you have," she said.

Some commissioners apparently were feeling the sting of an editorial commenting on how they had waited until the school board had left a Tuesday joint meeting with them before they began to ask questions about the school facilities plan.

"I will speak for this commission that's probably the most important thing right now is economics and how we are going to pay for everything," Commissioner Steve Keen said. "And yet the board of education leaves and it is like we don't want to get along. It is just by interacting in our reaction. We are trying to be proactive, but we are commissioners, and we have a board of education that is supposed to be doing its job and we are supposed to being doing our job. So the unity there, is to me, has to be balanced in order to get to an end result and I am having some thought about being a commissioner and yet letting them do their job and they let us do our jobs. So I need to understand how do we define that."

"By statute," responded Commissioner Sandra McCullen.

"By statute. Who makes the statute?" Keen said.

The legislature, Mrs. McCullen said.

"Then who holds who accountable?" Keen asked.

"The citizens," Mrs. McCullen replied.

"By electing us," Keen said. "So who has the authority?"

"The people," she said.

"No. The people have elected the commissioners," Keen said. "Now the commissioners have the authority to finance it as I understand, but where does the board of education come in, because all of these issues up here fall under the board of education."

"So you are saying we shouldn't even put that up there as part of the commissioners' plan?" she said.

"I didn't say that. No. I just said I am confused about it," Keen replied.

"There is nothing wrong, in my opinion, and I used to work in public schools, with commissioners stating goals and giving them to the board of education and holding them accountable," Mrs. Sykes said. "I am not saying, 'I am going to withhold your money if you don't do this.' But if these could be shared with what you really think is important, you are going to find out the goals are going to be the same thing. The board of education wants the same thing. There is nothing up here (on the list of issues) that any decent board member wouldn't want to see."

"Then why don't they spend their assets to do it?" Best asked.

"I think that is a question you can ask," she said.

"We have asked, and they tell us it is none of our business," Best responded.

"Is it?" Keen said.

At that point, Ms. Sykes said she was going back over the issue of communications commissioners had discussed earlier.

Commissioner John Bell added that changes in state law had removed local flexibility where funding is concerned. It is to either do it this way or be taken to court where funding is concerned, he said.

Mrs. McCullen said commissioners could educate themselves to help understand the education system.

"Maybe we could have some people to come in and help us understand that because sometimes we talk about things that we do not understand," she said.

Bell closed out the schools discussion by floating an idea.

"I just want to put something on the table, and this is not for any action today or discussion for today, but just think about this for a minute," he said. "School boards and school administration have their hands full with education.

"Think about if they didn't have to do facilities and buildings and all that stuff. Think about if county commissioners did all of the facilities, maintenance and that kind of stuff what that would do for education."

In an interview, Bell said he was not throwing stones at the school board, but rather looking for ways for it to get on "with the educational things they do so well."

Bell said he thinks it would be a good idea for the two boards to sit down and discuss freeing the school board from that responsibility.

"They wouldn't have to worry about buildings," he said. When they needed something, it would be the county's responsibility for buildings and maintenance.

"I want to get rid of any mistrust."