The first board of education meeting of the school year was Thursday night. And the tensest debate of the night was about what the board would aim to do for the rest of the year.
Superintendent Jerome Belair, using information from a with the board, drafted a set of goals for the board to address this year. All seven members present seemed fine with three of the goals: increasing communication with the public, improving the culture of the schools, and more program review. But two other goals proved controversial.
The first was the creation of a finance committee, a subset of the original board, an idea proposed and strongly endorsed by member Sheri Cote. The second was to look at corporate sponsorships as a way to raise funds for programs lost.
The board has made arguments for corporate sponsorships for the past two years to keep a variety of programs such as freshman sports. Currently, the school allows no advertising, while board members have suggested allowing banners to be put around the football field, and having a plaque if a company donates a substantial amount of money.
Still, board members such as Chairman Don Blevins and Timothy Egan have been vocal critics of accepting corporate sponsorships.
“I have a fundamental philosophical issue with corporate sponsorship. While I think it is unlikely to result in consistent or reliable or significant funding, my greater concern if it does … then we might find ourselves upholding to entities that are not the people we are answerable to,” Egan said. “I believe public education is paid for by the public, and answerable to the public, not answerable to some corporate entity that is giving us a pile of money.”
Fellow board member Kathleen McCarty said the board could find ways to have it so the sponsorships are not overly intrusive. Fellow board member Jody Nazarchyk took a stronger stand.
“A year ago we were looking into this, and nothing happened, and now we don’t have freshman sports, we don’t have TAG, we don’t have a couple of other things,” she said. “You don’t owe the corporate sponsors anything. The corporate sponsor is helping education and helping the students have afterschool activities and sports and things like that. There is no way the corporate sponsor is going to tell us what to do or how to do it.”
Cote pushed strongly for a finance committee, especially after last year’s budget saw 24 positions eliminated and teachers laid off, along with a variety of other cuts. The goal is to “explore the establishment” of a finance committee; it should just say the board will establish a finance committee, she said.
"I would ask the board why we would hesitate to start a finance committee when, you know, it would benefit us to have a little more information about our budget and be able to address issues as they come up,” Cote said.
McCarty disagreed, both with the word change and with the idea of a finance committee at all. First, a clear purpose has to be set up through the policy committee before the board can act on it, and second, the entire board should know the finances of the district, not just the committee.
“Certainly we want all board members to be totally knowledgeable about the budget,” McCarty said. “I’m very much in favor with having as much knowledge, I just don’t want to see the board break into smaller committees.”
Assistant Superintendent Craig Powers said the policy committee has it on the docket, but so far the two meetings of the policy committee were canceled because there was no quorum. Cote questioned why the policy committee is seemingly handling everything, instead of the board.
“The document says the board will, the board will, the board will,” Cote said. “Should it in fact say the policy committee will? Because I feel like that is what we’ve done.”
The board disagreed, saying the policy committee needs to draw up clear policy before any decision can be made. After 17 minutes of debate, the group unanimously approved exploring all five goals.