By Heather Mullinix
The Cumberland County Board of Education is working to improve its relationships on the board, with school personnel and the community, a self evaluation shows.
The board reviewed the results of the annual assessment during a work session Feb. 15, and discussed findings, particularly on how to more effectively involve the community in decision making.
While the board noted members of the community often attended board meetings, many of those individuals would leave shortly after the special recognition was completed and before the business portion of the meeting began.
"If there's a hot topic, they're here for that, and then they leave," said Jim Blalock, 8th District representative. "By the time the meeting is half over, the audience is 95 percent employees."
Blalock said he had talked with his constituents about the lack of public participation at meetings, though the board allocates time for comments from the community at the beginning of each meeting.
"The people in my district tell me, 'That's why we elected you,'" Blalock said.
Director of Schools Donald Andrews said the size of the meeting facility may be keeping people from attending. He said staff is working on a way to stream video of meetings over the Internet.
"We want people to be able to be here, but we understand there can be challenges," Andrews said. "But we want to help people be informed."
The available parking in the area of the Central Services office was also discussed as a barrier to more members of the community attending meetings.
Blalock noted at one time the board would hold meetings at a different school in the county each month. But again, he said, unless there was a controversial topic to be discussed, few would show up.
Under team building, the board gave itself the lowest rank, a 4.25, on how the board is able to disagree on matters and still maintain an attitude of mutual respect and trust.
Charles Tollett, 1st District representative, said he felt this was an area where the board was regularly improving, and added the diversity of opinion was important to the operation of the board.
"We have a richer conversation and reach a better decision when there is a diversity of opinion," he said.
Josh Stone, 4th District representative, said, "We've had our ups and downs, but I feel right now we are working together."
Under board relations with the director and staff, a low mark was noted with the statement board members work to avoid surprises by sharing concerns or questions with the superintendent in advance of board meetings.
The board agendas are usually available the Monday prior to the board meeting on Thursday, and available to the public with supporting materials online at the school system website, ccschools.k12tn.net. Andrews said he also emails board members asking if there are questions or need for further information.
"There have been a couple of surprises," he said. "But, I don't think it was intentional in an attempt to blindside me. Letting us gather information before the meeting eliminates dragging things out."
Janeway said he marked himself low on this point because of a question of policy he found regarding appointments to the Disciplinary Hearing Authority.
"Maybe my conscience is getting to me," he said. "But the DHA appointments were drug out two months."
He noted the board also rated itself lower in being prepared for meetings.
"Maybe one correlates to the other," he said.
One of the primary responsibilities of the board is to set policy for the operation of the school system. In that area, the board felt it had developed a strong, ongoing system to review all policies annually and make needed updates. However, it was felt there was a need to actively seek input of employees, students and community members before adopting a policy which affects those groups.
Janeway, who chairs the policy committee, said, "I feel we do ask principals and administrators how they feel about changes."
He pointed to recent changes to the compliant policy that shortened the time administrators had to respond to complaints. Administrators were asked if the changes still allowed adequate time to investigate complaints. The changes had been sparked by comments from the community. Janeway noted often members of the community don't attend meetings, but they will email with questions or concerns that are then addressed by the panel.
Andrews has also developed a student advisory committee that has provided input on the dress code, attendance policies and concerns about inconsistencies between the schools in the county.
"If there is a complaint, we go out of our way to listen, but do we actively seek input? Are people aware of what's coming up and what's going to be discussed?" asked Blalock.
Janeway said, "Could we do better? Absolutely. Do the people involved know about it? Yes."
He used the example of a new policy regarding exchange students. A decision on adopting the policy was delayed by a month to allow time for interested parties to share their thoughts and concerns.
Under budget and finance, the board felt the budget did not reflect the vision and mission of the school district.
"In an ideal world, we would have our vision and mission and then develop the budget to carry that out," Tollett said.
Blalock said, "I thought that was how we did it. And then we started cutting."
Stone pointed to the school resource officer issue, which was identified as a priority by the school board. The board agreed to fund three officers in the first year of the program, though the funds transfer has not been approved by the county.
"It was a disaster up the line, but we got it done," Stone said.
The board noted there was a need for greater advocacy for education both locally and at the state level, with proposed changes to law that would make it more difficult to contact legislators and to support the Tennessee School Boards Association, which works on behalf of local boards of education with the Tennessee General Assembly.
"We need to get involved," Janeway said.
Stone said, "It's easy to think someone else will do it, but we need to email our legislators and make phone calls. Cameron [Sexton] is also on Facebook."
Tollett added, "We have a responsibility to listen to the people, but we also need to advocate back to the electorate and legislature things we need."