Last night, the new majority of the Union County Board of Education was sworn in at Marvin Ridge HS. It was great to be at a Board of Education meeting and not get thrown out, so I have that going for me, which is nice.
During his presentation, Superintendent Dr. Houlihan acknowledged that there are issues with Transportation and that they are working to resolve them. He made it very clear that Transportation is not where it should be, but they are making improvements and have come a long way in a short time. He said we’re not where we should be, but we are moving forward. (I’m paraphrasing here).
I’m not going to dig into the Transportation issues at the moment, but I want to thank Dr. Houlihan for having the integrity to actually admit that something is broken. It has been many years since we had a Superintendent admit that everything wasn’t sunshine and daisies all the time. The first step in solving a problem is admitting that a problem exists. I appreciate that Dr. Houlihan was willing to openly discuss this. In August 2014, the first week of school following the previous redistricting plan saw entire neighborhoods of students stranded on street corners waiting for buses that would never arrive. All while UCPS publicly made the claim that no major busing issues occurred. You can read the details here. Houlihan is right, we are not where we should be, but we are better than we were. We are improving, and I think this is a good step forward.
Part of the meeting included new training for teachers, addressing the needs of students with dyslexia. I’m not familiar with the details of the Spire program so I’m not offering an opinion on the program itself, but I’d like to make an observation about the process. There are several Board members with experience with dyslexia and Gary Sides made a motion to delay the approval of the program to allow the new curriculum committee a chance to look it over. Dr. Houlihan advised the Board that while he would respect their decision, delaying the program until the January BOE meeting would put the teachers a month behind the curve in their training, and he recommended against the delay. The Board voted 8-1 in favor of waiting for the curriculum committee to approve the program, despite Houlihan’s objections.
In the old days, when Dr. Mary Ellis told the Board to jump, they jumped. The Board answered to her, even though technically she was supposed to answer to them. It is refreshing to see the Board of Education make a decision for themselves, but it doesn’t end there. After the 8-1 vote, Leslie Boyd offered the suggestion that a special meeting could be called, via teleconference if necessary, to ensure that the full Board could vote on the program after the curriculum committee had a chance to review it, and still accomplish everything under the January deadline Dr. Houlihan wanted. It’s a great idea, and a very simple solution. The appropriate BOE committee would be able to do their job and Dr. Houlihan’s deadline is met. A win-win. Ladies and gentleman, I give you a functioning Board of Education. A Board willing to make their own decisions and willing to find reasonable accommodations when their decision isn’t what UCPS administration was hoping for. That’s a great step forward.
During a presentation by the firm responsible for UCPS’s annual audit, Dennis Rape noticed some funds marked as “Unrestricted” and he asked the CPA at the podium for additional information. If the funds are truly unrestricted, they might be used for projects that could reduce our tax burden. Unfortunately the CPA was not expecting anyone on the board to ask about any of this, and so, obviously flustered, he had to admit that the partner who oversaw the audit was not available and they would have to get back later with the answer.
I kinda feel bad for the CPA, being put on the spot. Then again, perhaps his firm should have sent someone more closely involved with the audit in case someone actually was paying attention. I applaud Dennis for speaking up. How many millions of dollars did the previous BOE throw around for Ellis without actually looking into the details? As promised, Dennis is already looking for ways to improve UCPS without raising our taxes to do it. I don’t know if the unrestricted funds he asked about will help, but I appreciate that for the first time in several years, we have people asking questions about finances. I appreciate that he was asking questions in open session for everyone to see. Transparency is always a good thing, and that’s a good step forward.
Last night, Gary Sides officially made a motion to begin a plan to address the loss of taxpayer dollars and to bring the concept of neighborhood schools back to Union County. The plan calls for:
- Working with a demographer to analyze future growth
- Create a citizen/parent group to work with the Board
- Whenever possible, assign students to their nearest schools
- 100% no questions asked grandfathering for anyone who wants to stay where they are
Questions were asked as to whether or not grandfathering would be allowed through graduation and whether or not grandfathering would include transportation. Gary said that he would defer those details to the appropriate groups during the planning process, and that those things should be based on the data that comes in. Kathy Heintel added that there was no pre-determined agenda and no pre-determined deadline. Their goal was to do it once and do it right. The motion passed 9-0.
I’ve already made it clear that I think grandfathering should be allowed through graduation. I won’t support kicking students out against their will. I also believe that transportation should be considered as part of grandfathering, if at all possible. I don’t know what the application process will be for the citizen/parent group, but I will be throwing my name into the hat. However the group will be decided, I would encourage them to not stack the deck. I think the group should have representation from all sides. If someone who supported redistricting wants to be part of it, I think they would do well to consider it. As much as the old BOE shoved their agenda down our throats, we need to do better. This plan is a huge step forward.
All things considered, I’m very hopeful about the future of Union County Public Schools. These may be small steps forward, but they are moving in the right direction. Step by step, we’ll fix what was broken.