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Constituent school boards: The people's voice or a red-tape mess?


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Constituent school boards, like the District 20 board on the peninsula, will be the focus of efforts to reshape the school bureaucracy in the legislature next year
  • Constituent school boards, like the District 20 board on the peninsula, will be the focus of efforts to reshape the school bureaucracy in the legislature next year

Got a beef with your child's teachers? Well, you could take a shot with one of nine county school board members you voted for, but odds are the board member won't be very familiar with your school, much less the teachers involved. Head up the administrative ladder at your peril, because at the top they could tell you they didn't hire them. No, the place to go is your constituent school board, and even then you'll find the board basically rubber-stamped the administration's choice in the first place. If only all the problems were that simple.

Charleston County's constituent boards were birthed out of the consolidation of the county's eight school districts in 1967. The districts had been formed in 1951 from 20 different districts, but the county delegation pitched the unified district in '67 because rural districts still didn't have the money and resources of other districts. Recognizing the difficulty in wrestling power from eight fiefdoms, the legislature preserved the smaller district boards as constituent boards and gave them oversight over issues local officials were most interested in — teacher hiring, bus routes, discipline problems, and transfers.

Local legislators will take another crack at fixing the complicated, unique structure of the Charleston County School District when they return to Columbia in January. Some people see the eight regional constituent boards as another example of micromanaging in the district and others see the district board as too distant from the grassroots needs of individual schools, but both sides say that some aspects of the 30-year experiment that's stemmed from the "Act of Consolidation" have worn out their welcome.

"It was an awful political compromise," says Jon Butzon, director of the Charleston Education Network. "You get a really good idea of how effective (constituent districts) are by looking at all the school districts in the country that use the structure." That would be none, except the Charleston County School District.

The problem with the district's organization is that when too many elected officials wanted the keys, they just decided to take separate cars. Now the district and some of the constituent boards are heading in different directions and parents are trying to figure out which car to follow.

Though he recognizes the good intentions of some constituent board members, Rep. Ben Hagood (R-Mt. Pleasant) is hoping to take their keys.

"You just get a fractured system when you get too many people in the pot," he says.

Topping Hagood's concerns is the lack of accountability in hiring that he says is exacerbated by constituent board oversight.

"There's an advisory role (for the constituent board) that could be a benefit, but they don't need to be in the hiring business," he says. "The superintendent doesn't have any authority over her staff."

District 20 Constituent Board Chairman Marvin Stewart says the concern over hiring is a red herring because administration selections are as good as hired by the time they reach the board.

"The (constituent) board has been a rubber stamp," he says.

Student transfers, the other oversight that could be lost, has been a particularly sore subject in District 20, where constituent board members are demanding control of transfers to Buist Academy, a highly-ranked magnet school on Calhoun Street that has been exclusively handled by the district. Last week, board members also complained that students transferred into the district for disciplinary reasons or through No Child Left Behind were not being reported to the constituent board first.

Removing constituent boards could also provide a broader opportunity to reshape school attendance zones across constituent district lines, Butzon says, reducing overcrowding and breathing new life into some failing schools that have been isolated by the constituent district system.

Even those roles that would be expected to remain with the constituent board led to questions about undue oversight. Transportation is almost exclusively handled through a county contract and, while there's some benefit to disciplinary hearings on a local level, Butzon says it enables similar offenses to be handled differently based on where you live.

"It creates inequities in how punishment is set out," he says.

There also may be an opportunity to pull those elected positions from the ballot, Hagood says.

"They could be appointed and still serve the same purpose," he says.

Considering that several constituent board seats up for election this November will be on the ballot without candidates, appointments may become more than a consideration, but a necessity.

Stewart says he recognizes some of the shortfalls of the constituent board structure.

"I've always viewed it as a positive and a negative," he says. "It's another layer of bureaucracy between the people and the school board. But, from a practical standpoint, it's much needed because the school board members have been out of touch with their constituents."

Where the constituent board can recognize struggling programs in specific schools, Stewart says, the county school board has too many schools to oversee to recognize some of the small things.

"They tend to be voting on issues with schools where they don't have the slightest idea what's going on," he says. "The question isn't whether the constituent board is necessary, the question is whether the Charleston County School Board is necessary."

Some would argue that point, but it seems that both supporters and detractors see the benefit of having the constituent board as an advocate for local schools. Serving as almost a regional parent-teacher association, the constituent board can get into the schools and recognize problems.

"When done right, they're the eyes and ears in the local community and things needed are brought to the county board," says county school board member Hillery Douglas, also a former constituent board member. Douglas agrees that the constituent boards may better serve as strictly advisory as opposed to delving into the bureaucracy.

Butzon notes a retooled constituent board could focus on getting grant funding and rallying local support for their schools. Also, they could provide mandatory annual reports to the school district on school needs, Butzon says, but first they're going to have to require that the school district listen.

Though relations have been worn between the county school board and District 20, the constituent board has begun to see some success as advocates for their parents. Both constituent board members and parents are at the negotiating table with the district on refreshing residency requirements county-wide, largely based on the Buist concerns. Stewart notes visits with county school board members have been rare for the constituent board, but they've been coming to meetings in droves as election day draws near.

County school board member Sandi Engleman, also a former constituent board member, says the administration is often times standing in the way of constituent boards performing their duties.

"Either eliminate them or allow them to do their job," she says.

The road to changing the constituent board oversight won't be easy, Hagood says, with other concerns likely muddying the legislative waters, including calls for party-specific voting for county school board seats and single-member districts. But Butzon says the broad recognition of the constituent board as a stumbling block to improved schools should make it an easy sell.

"It ought to be a slam dunk," he says. "At the end of the day, you've got to wonder how it has held on for so long."


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