Tone it down IOW

Published 8:32 am Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A group hug might be the order of the day in Isle of Wight County, where open warfare among elected officials threatens to undermine the county’s progress.

Four school members last week took the rare, if not unprecedented, step of publicly admonishing one of their colleagues, Herb DeGroft, for a variety of alleged offenses. Also, the school board’s relationship with the county Board of Supervisors has become so strained that the two bodies apparently cannot even sit in the same room and discuss their differences.

We’re not sure what the ultimate impact will be on taxpayers and on the county’s reputation, but it can’t be positive. Infighting will hold back a county that has made tremendous strides in recent years and has much potential for continued progress.

The lightning rod in the conflict is DeGroft, the outspoken Hardy District representative on the school board who has been a thorn in Superintendent Michael McPherson’s side. DeGroft proudly calls himself a “burr in the saddle” of McPherson and the school board’s majority.

Public bodies, especially those with a propensity for rubber-stamping staff recommendations, can benefit from the presence of a resident naysayer and prodder. DeGroft fills that role on the Isle of Wight School Board, regularly questioning the decisions of his colleagues and the recommendations of McPherson. There’s nothing wrong with that. Scrutiny from within the ranks is healthy.

Has DeGroft gone too far? In its public admonishment, the school board’s majority said DeGroft has crossed the line by visiting schools unannounced and without administrators’ permission. On that count, we’re inclined to agree. A school board member’s job is to set policy, not micromanage day-to-day operations of the schools.

McPherson and the school board’s majority also were irked that DeGroft went before the Board of Supervisors and suggested a different way of approving the schools’ budget for fiscal 2010. Rather than in lump sum, DeGroft encouraged supervisors to approve the budget by category, thereby requiring any subsequent transfers between funding categories to require supervisors’ approval. McPherson and the rest of the school board prefer lump-sum approval.

A valid case can be made either way, but we don’t fault DeGroft for advocating his position before the Board of Supervisors. He certainly shouldn’t be punished for it.

A joint meeting and open dialog between the school board and the Board of Supervisors would seem to go a long way toward bridging the divide between the warring factions. Rather than communicating through resolutions of admonishment and jabs in the media, they need to look each other in the eye and resolve their differences like adults.