Source: Sherman Publications

Don't Rush Me
Covering board meetings can widen your eyes
'Unless you attend meetings, you cannot see abuses'

by Don Rush

April 27, 2011

Okay, I received no (zero, zippo, nada – nothin’) sympathy from last week’s gem of a column about having to report for duty in covering a board of education meeting – something I haven’t done since George Bush (No. 1) was president. I did, however, receive the following letter. Enjoy.

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Dear Don,

You didn’t say what was in the Lake Orion teacher’s union contract the board was voting on. It probably included something financially important to the teachers like pay or benefits changes. The teachers don’t normally attend board meetings unless there are awards to be given out, promotions to be announced, possible layoffs, or contract cuts. Normally there are very few people in attendance.

Most attendees are there because they have to be there. The board’s agenda on the district website is very general. If you want to know what is going on in your district, you need the detail that the board receives - the “board packet”. If you don’t receive it, you will never know what is going on in your school district.

What I never knew until last year, was that ANYONE can have access to the detailed board packet. It can be e-mailed to anyone who asks for it and there should be no cost for this. I requested Clarkston Community Schools board packets for all future meetings and it is e-mailed to me before each meeting without my having to ask for it each time.

In CCS, the superintendent’s secretary is responsible for the board packets. The contact person may be different in other districts, but if you want to know what is going on, you have to ask for the board packet. I’ve attended CCS board meetings for about 14 months and it has been very eye opening. If you are concerned about what is going on in your district, ask to be sent the board packet, attend the meetings, and if you have an opinion, express it!

If it’s something on the agenda, you can request to speak in front of the board before they vote on it, or if you have a general comment, you can speak at the end of the meeting (but don’t expect answers to questions). If the school districts (administration and the board) do not take control of the district finances, the control will be taken away from them as happened in Detroit Public Schools. There are dozens of Michigan financial firms trained in managing school district finances in preparation for districts getting into financial hot water. The state will step in and put one of these financial management companies in place to get finances under control. If the school districts don’t want that, they will need to take the bull by the horns now and get things under control before they are in trouble.

Due to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request I put in to CCS, I have every CCS employee’s salary. I can tell you that I was shocked to see the teachers’ salaries. Central Office salaries/benefits were also shockingly high in comparison to comparable jobs in our area. When property values and state per pupil school funding were both rising, our school systems were getting generous with the teachers/counselors, administrators (principals and asst. principals mostly), and central office staff (not so much with food service, transportation, para-pros, aides, maintenance/custodians, school office staff, etc.).

With plunging property values and state aid in the last few years, that process doesn’t work any longer and just like for the rest of us, there will have to be pay and benefit cuts or the whole house of cards will fall. CCS pushed down pay cuts to the middle paid employees last year (custodians and transportation) with the threat of privatizing and laid off quite a few employees (mostly aides, new, vibrant teachers, and other lower paid employees).

On April 15, the four CCS board members who always approve what the superintendent wants approved the one year teacher’s contract that froze teacher pay for one year (no cuts) and made some benefits changes. The board was not given the full contract to look at and approve (just changes off the previous contract and this was not a change order, it was a new contract).

Although the other three members of the board asked to see the complete contract, they were denied, and the four “rubber stamp” board members voted to accept the contract. Unless you attend meetings, you cannot see these kinds of abuses. The meeting was also conveniently not recorded for broadcast on Comcast).

Hopefully things are better at Lake Orion Community Schools’ board meetings.

Dawn Schaller

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Thanks, Dawn. I do know LOCS board meetings are available on-line and the one I attended, I was able to watch afterward. While Dawn singled-out school boards, it is important folks become involved with all their local governments. I say that, knowing in the town I live (Goodrich) there is the one millionth recall election in 10 years, and I don’t attend a single meeting!

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Next week, I will have something about local authors and the books they write (er, wrote).