Primary responsibilities

Published 9:49 pm Tuesday, September 17, 2013

One of the foundational tenets of public education in Virginia is the concept that decisions about local education are best made at the local level by people who will be held accountable by their neighbors and friends for those decisions. The concept is at the root of Virginia’s local school boards and gives reason for school boards to be elected, as they are in Suffolk.

But an elected school board whose members are discouraged from suggesting ways to improve a city’s educational system has nominal leadership, at best. An exchange during last week’s meeting of the Suffolk School Board should give voters in Suffolk reason to ponder just what sort of leadership they want from the people they have elected to oversee public education in the city.

Member Linda Bouchard found unanimous support for a motion at Thursday’s meeting to prioritize a 5-percent raise for teachers and assistants during the next budget cycle. But when she suggested that School Superintendent Deran Whitney explore the possibility of outsourcing portions of the maintenance and custodial services within the system, she found surprising resistance, and her motion was narrowly defeated.

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Member Judith Brooks-Buck distilled one set of objections in her comment: “I can’t imagine taking away from one (group of workers) and saying, ‘Business could do it a better way.’”

That objection reveals a desire to protect the educational system, rather than a focus on education itself. School boards should always remember they exist to ensure a quality education for students in their districts, not to provide guaranteed employment opportunities for hundreds or thousands of non-instructional workers.

Local school districts should employ as few non-instructional workers as necessary to efficiently operate their schools and support the teachers who provide the actual service that is expected from public school systems. If private enterprise can provide maintenance, custodial or even transportation systems cheaper and more efficiently — thereby freeing more funds for the important core service of teaching children — then a school board has a duty to examine having those services provided by businesses.

It is somewhat disconcerting to find some Suffolk School Board members seem to have lost that focus.

Even more disconcerting, however, is the other objection that was raised to Bouchard’s motion — that she had not cleared her proposal with the school superintendent before bringing it up in a public meeting. “I think some of this should have been brought up with the superintendent prior to this meeting,” member Enoch Copeland said. “What we are discussing, I think, should have been recommended by the superintendent. Therefore, I can’t support the second motion.”

To be sure, school board members rely on their superintendent to make recommendations about education based on his or her professional experience and training. But their primary responsibility is to voters, taxpayers and students, not to the superintendent. They should never feel they must vet their ideas for improving education with system administrators before raising them in an open forum.