City school board needs to get priorities right

Parents and residents in the city of Clinton need to pay careful attention to what happened this week during a Clinton City Board of Education meeting, where, after 75 votes and over a thousand dollars in taxpayer money wasted, a chairman and vice chairman were finally named.

Within that five-plus hour meeting, there were many warning signs that the board, its new chairwoman, Linda Brunson, and most particularly constituents need to heed before a perfectly good school system, with quality teachers and staff turns inward rather than focusing on the students the school board is elected to serve.

And that’s where we will start – with the students. Was anyone thinking of them, say 25 votes into a marathon of ties where six adults were acting more like petulant children intent on getting their way rather than public servants intent on moving the school system forward?

What happened to compromise? Where was the ability to work together toward a common goal?

The school board isn’t supposed to be a political board, so changing its leader should really happen every year, giving each member an opportunity to carry out the meetings and lead the discussions. In truth, that should be their only role.

While the chair and vice chair are leadership roles, they aren’t meant to be power positions. Their vote on any issue doesn’t count one iota more than a colleague’s, nor should it . And their position shouldn’t allow them to carry any more weight. It wouldn’t if board members stay focused on what they are supposed to do, which is set policy, rather than trying to advance personal agendas and, by virtue of that, form camps rather than working together as a group.

We’ve covered the city school board for decades, and this is the first time we have seen its members, no matter their makeup or their differences, unable to reach a compromise or even begin to discuss one until 50 votes into a chairmanship battle.

And that leads us to wonder what has happened over the course of the last year to divide the board so much that it cannot make the simplest of decisions.

We’ve felt it coming by virtue of quick votes taken without much discussion, extended closed-door sessions that we felt didn’t need to go that long, odd questions asked by board members who seemed not to know what an issue was prior to the vote. All we fear were warning signs that something was amiss.

And then comments like these from Monday night’s meeting: “Doing what is right as a board member means not doing things in secrecy, not micro-managing and doing it without collaboration and professionalism.” (board member Stuart Blount).

And this: “A board needs to work together.” (board member Georgina Zeng).

And finally this: “I tried to do what I could to unify this board.” (outgoing chairwoman Carol Worley)

The Board of Education has no reason not to be unified if they are focused on the school system and setting its policy rather than on self-serving agendas. They may not always agree, which is good, but they should always be able to find common ground and work out differences based on what is best for all students and not one particular group.

If they stray from their role, think their positions more important than they are, fail to communicate with one another and lose sight of the students, then division will occur and divisiveness will become the order of the day.

We don’t know how, but apparently that is what has happened. It must be turned around now.

Brunson, who was finally elected chairwoman late Monday night, must quickly bring this school board together. She is a long-time educator for whom we have immense respect, and we believe she has the ability to unify the board, which it so desperately needs. We believe she understands her new role. Now we hope she will use it to teach her colleagues the importance of staying out of the day-to-day operation of the schools, becoming more focused on the big picture and being open both with each other and the public they serve.

We, nor the public, will tolerate secrecy and self-serving agendas. And we will be watching to ensure neither happens.

It is time for this school board to return to what it is good at – helping children. Members should stand by their beliefs, but find common ground when necessary to move the system forward.

And they should ask themselves the all important question: What do I value most, getting my way or doing what is best for children. We pray it’s the latter, and we pray that’s how they respond when they sit together as a board.