School system's troubles

School system's troubles

May 12th, 2011 in Opinion Times

If there has been any doubt about the depth of the split on the county school board and the effect of the County Commission's malicious meddling in the elected school board's business, the matter should be clear by now. The reactionary faction of the County Commission effectively ran off former Superintendent Jesse Register in 2006 by refusing adequate funding until he left. And now its proxies on the county school board - expanded to a presumed 5-4 margin in the last school board elections - appear to have finally run off his successor, Dr. Jim Scales, the merged system's first black superintendent, with essentially the same fiscal choke-hold, and the use of unofficial back channel negotiations.

Dr. Scales' announcement Tuesday of his decision to accept a buy-out offer on his contract confirms both the back-stabbing of Scales, and the continuing implicit support of the Fred Skillern-led faction of the County Commission that has long worked in league with its school board counterparts to turn back the clock for county schools to the old two-tiered, city-county division.

No vote to negotiate

Dr. Scales said Wednesday that the negotiations which resulted in the buyout offer - a figure which may reach $260,000, plus pension benefits - were begun in February by the school board's attorney, Scott Bennett, at the behest of one or more school board members. It is glaringly notable, however, that the school board never officially voted to begin negotiations for a buyout of Scales' contract.

That raises concern about the authority on which the negotiations were initiated. Normally, the school board has to vote on matters of policy and business matters. School board members also are obligated under the state's Open Meetings and Records Act, the Sunshine Law, not to confer or deliberate on pending school board decisions or votes except in scheduled open meetings.

Sunshine law vs. secrecy

Dr. Scales and school board member Linda Mosley confirmed to this page Wednesday that the school board had never voted to begin buyout negotiations with Scales. Indeed, Mosley, a former board chairman, and board member Chip Baker said they were not aware of the negotiations. Mosely said that she knew only that board member Mike Evatt had talked to the school board attorney, Scott Bennett, about the apparent sentiment of several school board members who wanted Scales to leave.

Bennett told this page Wednesday afternoon that it was board chairman Everett Fairchild who asked him to approach Scales' attorney to inquire whether Scales would be open to negotiations to buy out his contract. Bennett would not comment on his discussions with other board members regarding the issue, but he insisted it was appropriate for the chairman to ask him to make the inquiry, especially given the board's obvious division.

Scales, for his part, said he did not question the inquiry about a buyout, and the lack of a board vote, because he had realized the negative effect of the division over his administration on the school system. "This is a great school system - and could be a fantastic school system - if we had the right kind of support," he said.

Mosley, Baker and board members Jeffrey Wilson and George Ricks had previously resisted efforts by Evatt, Fairchild and Rhonda Thurman and David Testerman to force Scales to leave. It's not clear where board member Joe Galloway stands on the issue of a buyout of Scales' contract, which runs to 2012.

A harsh shift

Efforts to push Scales out took root after Evatt, Testerman and Galloway were elected to the school board last September, shifting the weight of the school board's majority away from Scales' favor.

It's an open question as to whether Fairchild initiated the move toward negotiations on his own, or whether other anti-Scales members had agreed on that action in private discussions in violation of the Sunshine Law. Bennett noted, however, that even if the move had violated provisions of the Sunshine Law, a newly passed state law requires a 15-day public notice of a proposal to effect a buy-out of a school superintendent's or director's contract.

That law, he said, essentially cures the effect of a possible Sunshine Law violation because the public is duly alerted to the result. The buyout resolution must be placed at the top of the subsequent meeting's agenda, and the board's meeting must be held at its customary time and place. The meeting for the vote on buying out Scales' contract is scheduled for May 26.

Reprehensible conduct

Whether or not that cures a possible violation of the Sunshine Law, a secret agreement among four or five school board members to pursue negotiations for a buyout without duly informing the other board members suggests reprehensible conduct and blatant disregard for the spirit of the Sunshine Law, as well as evidence of a severe rift on the board.

The latter is no surprise. Several of the anti-Scales faction have long wanted to roll back some of the programs that Register put in place, and that Scales maintained, to help elevate urban schools and boost achievement of black students. Those members have long favored current assistant superintendent Rick Smith for the superintendent's job, and they may now put him in that job. Their regressive sentiments are shared by Skillern and other County Commission members under his influence.

Mosley rightly finds the surprise of the announcement and the secret negotiations "totally disgusting." She and Baker further raised the issues of where the money for the buyout would come from, and whether or how a search for a new superintendent would be conducted if a vote to buy out Scales' contract succeeds.

Concerns over search, budget

Both are serious concerns. The school system is facing a $14 million deficit. Scales had drawn up a balanced budget, but the commission has mysteriously put it on hold, a move supported by Rhonda Thurman, who suggests leaving budget issues for a new superintendent. Reports were also floated Wednesday that a county commissioner has already promised money for the buyout, and more money for the school system if Scales leaves and Smith takes over, albeit initially as an interim. Some school board members, moreover, seem troublesomely eager to avoid a search for a highly qualified superintendent.

None of this is good. The divisive politics and the County Commission's continuing negative influence over the elected school board and the system's operation are wrong on their face, and exceedingly counter-productive.

The county's school system - just 14 years past the merger of the former racially divided city and county school systems - needs vigorous support for a superintendent and curriculum that are fair to all students and that broadly elevate student achievement. This county cannot afford the drag of a backward school system that tolerates racism and a two-tiered achievement policy. That would be a disaster for the county's future economic development prospects, and for far too many of our children.