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Superintendent has some hits, misses this year

June 29, 2011 - As the school year wraps up for Clarkston Community Schools it provides the community an opportunity to look in the rearview mirror to assess the performance of our new superintendent and our school board.

Regarding the superintendent, there are both positive and negative points to make concerning his performance and, while I don't have all the facts, there are some observations that can be made.

On the positive side the superintendent has been a vocal advocate for students and staff.

As superintendent of Clarkston Community Schools and as president of Learning Forward Michigan, he has taken the opportunities these offices provide to heighten public awareness regarding the importance of K-12 education and the need for appropriate funding levels.

He has worked to encourage parents and members of the community to become engaged in the effort to ensure adequate funding. For this and for the many other day-to-day activities in which he participates on behalf of Clarkston Community Schools he is to be commended.

On the negative side, the superintendent has been unable to gain control of spending by staff members who use district credit cards.

From Sept. 2010 through April 2011, those charges totaled over $182,000. How many instructional aide hours at $15.36 per hour could have been preserved by reductions in the expenditures noted above?

In response to the State of Michigan's decision to raise the passing scores of the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP), the superintendent's reaction was to call into question the efficacy of the test.

If the superintendent believes the test is not effective, he should work with the appropriate agencies to change or replace it.

In the meantime, the state's decision to raise the passing scores should be looked upon as both a challenge and an opportunity to reassess school programs and methodologies to determine if there are alternatives that will improve student learning.

The superintendent's first response to the governor's proposed K-12 reductions was to equate the budget cuts to losses of 155 teaching staff.

As an advocate for both students and teachers it seems that teaching staff reductions would be a last resort, after examining all other possibilities.

Lastly, the superintendent made the point that he works for the school board not the governor.

More accurately the superintendent works for the community; the school board is the group elected by the community to be good stewards of the district on behalf of the community and to direct the superintendent's daily activities.

With respect to the board, their disagreements are not serving the district well and have caused a split on many issues; in most cases the opposing parties are the same.

This has resulted in some motions being approved that clearly show a lack of judgment on the part of those voting with the majority.

Over the past several months, for example, the board very narrowly defined the responsibilities of its finance committee at a time when the committee should be actively and fully involved in district business because of a deteriorating financial situation and the presence of a new superintendent.

It voted to approve union contracts without reviewing their final form; and approved opening Project Lead the Way to students from other districts when the program itself had not been approved for the district.

It adopted procedures that, among other things, limit media access to district information by funneling all requests and responses through either the board president or the superintendent; adopted a requirement that each board member will "hold confidential all matters that, if disclosed, may have a negative impact on the district."

What is it some members of the board do not want the community who elected them to know?

The superintendent remains on the learning curve but time is short. A lack of financial resources, if not already doing so, will eventually take its toll on the quality of education our students receive.

It is critical to evaluate each program particularly those that are narrowly focused and benefit relatively few, control each dollar especially any expenditures not contributing directly to classroom excellence, and continue to advocate for students and teachers in both words and action.

It is precisely at times like these that the district needs all board members and staff to be engaged, exercising good judgment, mindful of good practices, responsive to parents and the community and relentless in ensuring that scarce resources are spent wisely and to the benefit of students in the classroom.

The need is urgent and becoming more so each day.

Some members of the board have not yet reached this conclusion and choose to continue making ill-advised decisions and remaining at arms length from those whose activities they were elected to lead.

Lawrence Matta is a small-business counselor with SCORE and a resident of Independence Township

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