A mockery of term limits

Published 8:08 am Friday, July 31, 2009

City fathers who adopted a three-term limit for Franklin School Board members believed — correctly, in our view — that nine years of service is enough for one person. The service limit would ensure a nice blend of experience and fresh perspectives on a board that needs both.

The drafters of the ordinance setting a three-consecutive-term limit probably assumed that their intent was clear and that no elaborate explanation was required. Recent City Councils, unfortunately, have violated the spirit of that law and exploited a loophole that allows nine-year school board veterans to leave the board briefly and be reappointed, thus restarting the three-term clock.

A year ago, board member David Benton, some 18 months after serving his “maximum” of nine years, was put back on the board to fill an unexpired term. He now is being considered for yet another three-year term that would result in his serving 13 out of 14 years. Meanwhile, colleague Mona Murphy, the school board’s vice chairman, who has served for nine of the past 10 years, was appointed earlier this month to another full term. By the end of her term in 2012, should she finish it, Murphy will have served 12 of the past 13 years.

The City Council should stop making a farce of the three-term limit and either rewrite the ordinance or rescind it. We’d prefer that the council keep the term limit, close the loophole that has been exploited and codify a minimum three-year break in service. If not, council members should go ahead and repeal it and stop the “wink-wink” gamesmanship with the laws of our city.

We’re obligated to note, should repeal be the decision, that “experience” can be vastly overrated. Just look to neighboring Southampton County, where school board seats have become lifetime appointments. Or to Franklin itself, where, despite all of this school board “experience,” public school enrollment has plummeted 20 percent in a decade, taxpayers pay more to educate fewer children, standardized test scores lag state and regional averages, six-figure superintendents overlap on the payroll for more than a year, and facilities continue to deteriorate.

We don’t mean to demean the sincere service of school board members, including Benton and Murphy, or to suggest that the board is entirely responsible for all of the problems that plague our schools. Our point is that experience on the school board isn’t a magic bullet.

We’re reminded of the football coach whose optimism about the upcoming season is rooted in the return of every starter from a team that didn’t win a single game last fall. He might just be better off playing some freshmen.