Karen Jones: Involve stakeholders in school consolidation process

Published 11:24 pm Saturday, May 7, 2016

By Karen South Jones

Special to the Salisbury Post

The General Statutes of the State of North Carolina (§ 115C-47.3) give to local boards of education the duty, responsibility and authority “to divide their various units into attendance areas without regard to district lines.”

This activity, in my observation, rarely is met with enthusiasm either by the boards who undertake it or the students and families who are affected by it.  Nevertheless, it is an absolutely necessary function if boards are to provide a high quality education for all children (regardless of their addresses) and to be good stewards of the limited resources available to them.

Despite what some may believe, board of education members don’t sit around (alone or with their colleagues) and dream up ways to make their constituents angry or unhappy. Well, that’s been my experience, at least.  The board members with whom I’ve worked were well-intentioned, self-sacrificing and always had students’ best interests at heart. Sometimes, however, there are just darned tough decisions to be made and it’s the board’s job to do it.

Having written that, I think this public relations nightmare could have been avoided. The issue of a Cleveland-Woodleaf consolidation first surfaced in 2008 and the reaction was pretty much the same then as it is now. What we did wrong, and what I think this board did wrong, was not to engage the stakeholders in preliminary and early discussions.

Like the current board, after the proposed consolidation was made public we held one (or more) forums to solicit parent and community input.  My board got smacked upside our collective heads for not knowing — or bothering to find out — how much those schools mean to their respective communities.

In the end, we decided to punt the very real maintenance and infrastructure issues of Cleveland and Woodleaf to a subsequent board. Was it the right decision? I don’t know. I do know that we were persuaded by the impassioned pleas we heard in those community forums.

I would have hoped that the mistakes my board made would have served as a learning experience for subsequent boards, including this one, on how not to approach controversial issues.

What’s my point? I encourage parents, students and others to make their voices heard. You have every right to do so.  You should hold Board of Education members accountable for the decisions they make. I’d also urge you to remember that those board members have a statutory job to do and, particularly in the case of drawing attendance lines, it can’t always affect someone else’s child.

To Board of Education members, I ask you to involve key stakeholders as early as possible in the decision-making process. Yes, I know that floating trial balloons about difficult decisions invites intense criticism and pushback that make you wonder why you ever ran for office.  Those reactions, however, are the cost of doing the work of the people. Decisions must be made in public view, not behind closed doors.  If we’re all honest with and respectful toward each other, I’m positive good things will be the result.

Karen South Jones was a member of the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education representing the North District from 1994 to 1998 and from 2006 to 2010.