Put limits on school involvement

Published 10:42 am Saturday, March 17, 2012

I’m guessing a couple of you may have noticed a consistent theme in my columns the last few weeks.

I realize there are those of you who may be growing weary, but if you’ll hang in there, I promise it will be the last time I bring it up again here for a while.

Well actually, I promise to try not to bring it up again. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if the horse is actually dead, or just laying around taking a nap, so I may have to poke it on occasion to see if it needs more beating.

About a year ago, I wrote a column in which I advocated for Southampton County having an elected School Board. I distinctly remember stating that it had absolutely nothing to do with the quality of work being done by the board members, who I think are all fine people doing a pretty decent job.

I just felt it was important that the school board have some accountability to the taxpayers of the county, and under the current system where board members are appointed by another group of individuals who are also not elected by the taxpayers of the county, the School Board really doesn’t have to answer to anybody.

I think that’s a pretty unhealthy situation under the best circumstances, but considering that public school funding has become such a contentious issue given our financial situation at both the state and local levels, I think it’s a system that needs to be addressed and ultimately changed.

Most of the folks I have spoken to on this issue, from members of the General Assembly to county supervisors to average taxpayers like me, agree that something should be done, but there is some disagreement on how best to implement change.

As I see it, there are really only two options. We can either go to having an elected school board, or we can have a school board that is appointed by the Board of Supervisors.

Several have said they feel we should go with the second option. Let me explain why I feel we should go with the first.

The reason for having a School Board in the first place is to have a governing body, independent from the Board of Supervisors, whose role it is to make policy decisions about how we educate our children.

It’s a system of checks and balances or a separation of powers, much like ones we have wisely implemented in many other areas of government. It is therefore the Board of Supervisors’ responsibility to only allocate funds to the School Board, not make policy decisions on how the schools operate.

That’s not to say the Board of Supervisors doesn’t have the right to question the operational efficiency of the schools and their administrators; if they didn’t, supervisors would not be doing their due diligence on behalf of taxpayers when making a funding decision.

But the Board of Supervisors should avoid getting directly involved in how schools are run. If a county supervisor, who controls how much money the schools have to operate with, were to have the authority to seat someone on the School Board, it’s not hard to see how that school board member would feel somewhat beholden to the supervisor who gave them their job, not the taxpayer who is footing the bill.

Independence and objectivity would be lost, and that’s in direct conflict with why we have school boards to begin with. Having an elected school board, held accountable for policy decisions by taxpayers and the parents of children, whom they are charged with educating, seems to me to be a much more desirable situation.

To affect the change would be a relatively simple process. According to the Southampton County registrar, a petition to change to an elected school board signed by 10 percent of registered voters in the county would lead to a ballot referendum in the next election.

If the referendum passed, residents would get to vote for a School Board next fall. I may be wrong, but it seems that today’s taxpayers are more concerned than ever about having government institutions that are controlled by the people, not institutions that are out of reach of the people.

The opportunity to regain that control is a simple ballot initiative away, and I’d like to see that happen.

TONY CLARK is the general manager and advertising director at The Tidewater News. He can be reached at tony.clark@tidewaternews.com.