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Opening up school business

By Gerald Totten
Posted Thursday, January 11, 2007

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Siler City, NC - During the past month I have been able to personally visit five of our schools. The teachers and staff continue to be impressive because of their dedication and hard work but certain conditions in two of them are less than impressive. More about that later.

In the six weeks since taking my oath of office, I have been chastised for not following the “chain of command” and the writer suggested I be recommended for non-judicial punishment, presumably by the other members of the board, for my temerity in speaking out about a certain issue. From my perspective which arises from a study of the statutes which create and empower the Board of Education and designates the responsibilities – not command – of this board, our duty is to the children/students of this county. We are responsible to the voters who chose us for this important post to provide an education. We are not subservient to any so-called “chain of command” as none exists! We choose the superintendent and she is responsible to us as she carries out the day to day duties of what the statutes and this board enumerate. There is no other way to interpret the statutes, the Constitutions of the United States and North Carolina and our oaths of office. If I have violated any of those responsibilities, recall me or have the State Board of Education fire me.

Otherwise let us get about the business of creating professionalism on this board and perform as a Board of Directors should perform. For too many years things have been done outside of the public’s eye. If we are to establish any credibility that must stop! The sole items which remain closed forever relate only to certain personnel and student matters. Temporarily we may withhold pending litigation and contractual matters but when they are settled, those too have to be made public. We have a poor record of doing that.

We need to ask ourselves, “What do we want for our schools? What do we want them to achieve? What is our vision, our strategy, our practical systems? How will we prioritize inputs and measure results? After having attended a considerable number of school board meetings for several years and observing how business is conducted, I do not have a good feel for the answers yet but hope to get there soon.

My exposure was characterized as a “tiresome tirade and self-righteous ‘truth’ crusade.” I do not apologize for putting board business into the daylight for public view. That comment from the same person previously quoted went on to say if the crusade was continued I won’t accomplish much as a board member. I guess I’ll have to settle for accomplishing public information of many heretofore hidden decisions put into public light. I can live with that!

I have asked that the open meetings minutes of this board show the amount of fund balances every month as well as the intended uses of those funds. This week for the first time in my long memory, the total amounts are shown under the heading “Fund Balance Report.” This is a start but the planned uses are not published yet. These are your taxpayer funds. Through this effort maybe the old saw, “we just don’t have the money” will likewise disappear when it comes to many appeals from the schools and parents. For the first time, you can see where the money is and what the uses might be. It is your right to know and I’ll insist it be available to you.

Finally I mentioned conditions in two of the visited schools earlier. The answer to me is simply a matter of priorities. I have been asked about my attendance at a National School Board Association convention in San Francisco during April. My priority is to use the $2,000 or more allegedly budgeted for my attendance to buy the long needed calculators for Northwood’s Math Department; to repair the rest room at J.S. Waters which has been written up for years by the Health Department for deficiencies; to complete the long promised soccer field at Horton and; to remove that abandoned health trailer at Horton instead of allowing it to be used as a haven for undesirable activities. The budgeted amount for that trip won’t cover all of those costs but they can be a start if we begin to prioritize!

Maybe we have the money to do a number of these deferred items but it is buried in the wrong fruit jar - like over $300,000 paid out as extra supplements to certain employees, the majority of whom are located in the central office.

The author of that diatribe about my prior comments certainly is on notice there is no chain of command and, therefore, I decline discipline by any member of this board. I defer that to the public I serve.

Gerald Totten is a newly elected Chatham County School Board member.

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