published Sunday, March 3rd, 2013

Cook: Board games

Last month, I went to the Hamilton County school board meeting, a list of pressing issues on my mind so large even Stevie Wonder could see them.

The iZone. The iPad. School safety. State standards. Why can't we fundraise with wine box tops along with cereal ones?

Halfway through the meeting -- not long after the school board had congratulated a small nation of middle school cheerleaders for winning a trophy as tall as they were -- I got that funny feeling (no, the other one) that people must get moments before they're Punk'd: What, exactly, is going on here?

It happened when the board brought up an issue I hadn't thought of since I was 8 and left my comb at home.

Lifetouch.

The school picture people.

For one-sixth of the meeting, a few board members peppered poor Leon Rash, director of purchasing, with questions about the county's drop-in-the-bucket contract with Lifetouch.

By my count, and I may have dozed off for a bit, there were 22 questions -- and responses -- about Lifetouch. Back and forth, forth and back, to and fro. Wimbledon takes less time.

Then, half an hour later, the meeting ended.

And no one had ever brought up The Things That Really Matter.

"Board members have the latitude to decide whether to zoom down to the level of individual decisions or to keep discussion at the policy-making level," board attorney Scott Bennett told me a while ago.

Our school board may be the most important board in the county. A $380 million budget. The safety of nearly 50,000 people. Guiding the great and noble work of educating our kids.

So yes, at times they've got to get mired in the nitty-gritty details. It's their job. But they don't have to pitch a tent there, avoiding the Big Questions like they were the flu virus. The bad strain.

After all, did we elect them to approve school field trips?

Or to guide the vision for our public schools?

Can't they trust the very man they hired -- Superintendent Rick Smith -- to secure and maintain contracts for, holy smokes, school pictures of all things?

Or out-of-town conferences for teachers. Substitutes back home. Routine purchasing. Naming rights to classrooms or schools. (All things discussed, at length, in the past).

At one point during last month's meeting, Le Andrea Ware, the hard-working iZone director, stood up and said a brief hello to the board. She had in her hands a binder, about as big as the Gutenberg Bible, showing all the work she's been doing.

Any discussion?

Not only did the board not discuss the iZone that night, it's never been fully discussed by the board.

To borrow a phrase used by District 1 board member Rhonda Thurman that night, it's bass-ackwards.

Sure, before the night was over, Jonathan Welch (District 2) proposed a mini-retreat to discuss the iZone. And yes, there are some good people on that board. Salt of the earth. Veterans of local schooling. And intelligent.

So flaunt it. Put it out there. Show us what it looks like for a board to actively engage in the visionary process of searching for solutions to our educational issues.

Talk about the benefits and dangers of modern technology and how not to turn kids into screenagers.

Let's count all the problems that would get solved by starting school later in the day.

Discuss teacher retention. The answer to student disengagement. How to reward principals.

Don't become a Tom Thumb board, stuck on only the small things. We need you to be more than that.

Don't give us something undeveloped. Out of focus. Fuzzy.

Like they say at Lifetouch: Maybe it's time for a retake.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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AndrewLohr said...

$380 million for 50,000 people? Give students who leave the system $5000 each--"spending-cut scholarships"--for home, private, other public, college, or alternative education, or to park in an education/retirement fund until needed. For every 16 students who leave, there's another dollar per student for those who stay, if the legislature writes the laws that way. Senator Burke, are you listening?

March 3, 2013 at 12:33 a.m.
timbo said...

The problem with the school board, and always has been, it is the elephant graveyard of retired school personnel. Like the rest of county and city government, there are two many ex-government employees in office. Talk about the fox watching the chicken house.

They are the last people who need to be on the school board. They will always vote to protect their cronies and protect their own pension interests.

Don't vote for ex-government employees for anything. They cannot be objective.

March 4, 2013 at 3:34 p.m.
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