07/11/12 — Keen calls for schools/county meeting

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Keen calls for schools/county meeting

By Steve Herring
Published in News on July 11, 2012 1:46 PM

Wayne County Commissioner Steve Keen, who last month failed to sway his fellow commissioners to call for a joint meeting with the Wayne County Board of Education, Monday night took his case directly to the school board.

Tuesday morning he tried again, this time successfully, to convince commissioners to ask for the joint meeting -- an action that prompted Chairman John Bell to caution the board about creating the perception it was meddling in the duties of another elected board.

Keen's motion for the meeting to discuss the schools' financial and facilities needs passed 5-1, with Bell voting no. Commissioner J.D. Evans did not vote and, in accordance with board policy, was counted as a yes. Commissioner Sandra McCullen was not at the meeting because of a death in her family.

Bell said Keen was "acting like" commissioners "have a problem" with the school board.

Keen said he had implied no such thing, and that Bell must have imagined it. He said that he was not in the education business, but rather the funding business, where schools are concerned.

"All of us have a certain amount of responsibilities," Bell said. "You are trying to convince us that you are so concerned about the schools, but you didn't even vote for the budget. So in a sense you voted against the school funding.

"We need to think about these things before we do so much talking. It takes an approved budget to get these things done. You didn't vote for the budget."

That ended the back-and-forth exchange between the two men.

The school board took no action Monday and only one member, Chris West, had any response to Keen.

"As a member of the Wayne County Board of Education, I think it is important and vital that we all attend," West said. "We have a job to do, and we need to all represent the Wayne County Board of Education meeting collectively with all the commissioners. We can discuss the future of our school system with commissioners. I think we all need to be present.

"I just wanted to go on record saying that I support Mr. Keen. In the event we have a meeting, I think we all ought to be present and need to have a say."

Keen repeated for commissioners the comments he made before the school board.

He said it was "a bit unusual" for a commissioner to speak during the public comment section of a school board meeting.

"However, in light of the recent debate over our county budget, I wanted to let you know where I am coming from," Keen said to the school board.

Keen said his son graduated from Wayne County Public Schools and that as such he was "extremely interested" in ensuring the schools are second to none.

Keen said he was committed to ensuring the school system has the funds needed to properly educate the county's children. He said that was why he had made the motion for commissioners and school board to hold a joint meeting.

"I still feel that a joint meeting between our boards is the right course of action," he said. "This meeting would increase transparency and would ensure that all hands are on deck when it comes to meeting our schools' needs.

"A joint meeting would ensure that all members of the board of commissioners have a complete understanding of our county's educational picture. Education is a top priority, and we should treat it as such."

However, Bell said it is the school board's responsibility to work out solutions to its problems.

"It is not up to commissioners to meet with the school board and dedicate to them," he said. "We are trying to tell them to build a long-range (facility) plan and that is not our responsibility.

"I think that was the problem before. We got too involved in the school board and that caused conflict. They have a plan and said they are not changing."

Bell was skeptical that the meeting would be productive and expressed surprise that some of the commissioners had voted for the meeting.

Commissioner Jack Best said he did not disagree with Bell, but that he didn't mind listening to anyone. Also, Best said that that the meeting should still be held next month between Bell, school board Chairman Eddie Radford, County Manager Lee Smith and schools Superintendent Dr. Steve Taylor.

That group could then provide the agenda for the joint session, Best said.

The board did not set a date for the joint meeting.

"We talked about this at last month's meeting and those of us who have been on the board for years know what a traumatic situation it was when the two boards got together," Best said. "We never accomplished anything in the eight years. That is why we made the recommendation that the chairman of the school board and chairman of county commissioners, county manager and superintendent get together and talk and bring it back to their respective board and we move from there."

Keen raised the issue of a joint meeting last month after he and fellow Republican Commissioner Mayo voted against the county's $159 million budget.

Keen, who argued the budget did not include enough funding for schools and that it lacked a capital improvement plan, said he wanted to see an updated school facilities plan, too.

Keen then made a motion to schedule the joint meeting.

Mrs. McCullen offered an amendment to Keen's motion to have Bell, Radford, Smith and Taylor meet.

Mrs. McCullen, Bell and Evans voted for the amendment. Best, Mayo and Keen voted against it. Commissioner Bud Gray did not vote, and following board policy, was counted as a yes for a 4-3 decision.

The vote on the amended motion passed by the same margin.