A hard-working school board

Published 11:09 pm Friday, October 17, 2008

The Franklin City School Board has absorbed its fair share of criticism on this page — and in the community at large.

Much of it has been deserved. Some simply has come with the territory in an era when public education is under more scrutiny than ever.

But this I’ll say about Franklin’s school board: Its shortcomings do not derive from apathy or a lack of passion for the mission with which it’s been charged.

And the performance measures on which the school board has been vulnerable to criticism in the past — assertiveness and fortitude, to name a couple — show signs of becoming strengths.

That was obvious to me Thursday night as I watched the school board in action at its monthly meeting.

A reporter’s family obligations pressed me into reporting duty at the last minute. It’s part of the gig as a community newspaper publisher. You roll up your sleeves and do what it takes to get out a newspaper. It’s also fun on occasion to get back to my journalistic roots and be a reporter again.

A frequent criticism of columnists and editorial writers is that we live in ivory towers — too isolated from the real world to understand the way it functions. That’s more of a problem for The New York Times than for The Tidewater News, but the point is well taken. I guard against a warped view of reality by getting out in the community and talking to and observing the people and institutions I comment about.

The school board impressed me on several fronts Thursday.

First, I commend members’ willingness to devote the time and effort that such an important job requires. No board in the region devotes more time to its tasks, arguably, than the Franklin school board, which on Thursday worked for about 11 hours straight.

The board convened at the Franklin Municipal Airport at noon to pore over standardized-test scores and teacher performance data for some five hours. (The City Council should have a similar session and dissect the city budget before setting a property tax rate on Oct. 27.) School board members proceeded to City Hall for a two-hour closed session on personnel matters, then immediately moved into open session to tackle a lengthy agenda for their regular monthly meeting. The clock was pushing 11 before the school board called it a night.

Despite a grueling day of meetings, the board never got in a rush. A delegation representing the Franklin High robotics team made a thorough case during “Citizen’s Time” for a permanent practice facility, but Chairman Bill Scarboro, wanting to hear more, invited the group to stick around for further discussion of the topic later in the meeting.

The school board struck a needed balance between praise of good things happening in the school system (a highly successful Senior Night and College Night and renewed funding by the Franklin City Educational Foundation of a mentoring program for new teachers, for example) and critique of what’s not working. Board members grilled a contractor that hasn’t lived up to the terms of its agreement with the schools and challenged administrators to do what’s necessary to get more at-risk students involved in after-school tutoring sessions.

Among themselves, board members debated the issues rigorously but respectfully. On the tutoring sessions, for example, board members were divided on whether positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement is needed to get students to attend. On the central point, though, the board was unanimous: Current participation rates are unacceptable and must improve.

The school board still has much to account for from the past several years and plenty of tough sledding ahead, including what Scarboro called “the most pivotal decision this board will make on behalf of our community” — the hiring of a new school superintendent.

After Thursday night, I may well question the board’s decisions again. I won’t question its effort.