School board seeks to build bridges at retreat

Published 12:10 am Monday, January 23, 2017

By Rebecca Rider

CHAPEL HILL — In its final discussion of a three-day retreat, members of the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education put their heads together to talk about relationships. With the community, that is.

Board members have consistently expressed frustration at a general lack of interest or involvement — meetings are usually sparsely populated, and over the course of the retreat teachers commented on how difficult it can be to get parents to visit schools.

So Saturday morning the board thought about how it could begin to build bridges.

Board Vice Chair Susan Cox made the first suggestions — holding regional meetings and reaching out to school parent-teacher groups.

The board once before held a regional meeting at West Rowan High School in April 2016 to discuss the consolidation of Cleveland and Woodleaf elementaries. The meeting, which involved previous board member Chuck Hughes arguing with members of the audience, was often referenced in Saturday’s discussion, and more than one board member called the event a “train wreck.”

But it was also the most feedback the current board has received on any issue, members said. The board may have taken a few stones, but “you came, and you took,” board member Travis Allen said he was told by an attendee.

“It meant a lot that we came and we listened,” he said he was told.

Miller said that if the board was to hold regional meetings, parents and community members needed to be allowed to speak, first.

“They need to feel that we want to hear what they have to say,” he said.

No matter what the topic was, he said, the focus needed to be on getting the community involved.

Board member Dean Hunter said that to do that, they had to build a relationship with the community, first. And part of that would involve building a reputation as community advocates.

“We have to cultivate a relationship with the community where, ‘We are you. We are your voice,’” he said.

Allen said that a good way to start would be to hold the public hearing for the Woodleaf/Cleveland merger in the community.

“If you’re not going to do it there, people are going to think you’re running from it,” he said. “… And you can’t run away from it. … You can’t run from that, you have to embrace that.”

Board Chairman Josh Wagner referenced the West Rowan meeting and said he felt that the end result was positive because, for the first time, the board did not keep to its usual policy of not responding to commenters.

“There needs to be some interaction,” he said of future meetings.

Wagner also proposed that, instead of holding a meeting with a lot of information, board members go into the community and simply ask what people think of a certain topic, and then discuss it with them.

Hunter again said the board needed to address misperceptions.

“People assume we’re in the same bed as our legislatures. They view us as politicians and not advocates,” he said.

They discussed how they would run community presentations for a few minutes, before Miller commented.

“The first thing is a relationship,” he said, “We don’t have a relationship.”

The best place to start, they agreed, would be at the PTA. Miller suggested beginning at the PTA’s spring luncheon, and the board agreed.

After the retreat adjourned, Cox said she felt like the board came up with a solid plan for the future, and said she found the retreat to be “worthwhile.”

“I really felt like I had some mind-changing ideas here,” she said.

Miller and other board members said that they appreciated the time the opportunity the retreat afforded to hear from teachers about problems, concerns and solutions.

“We don’t always have that,” he said.

During closing statements, Superintendent Dr. Lynn Moody said representatives hadn’t found answers to every problem plaguing the school system, but felt that improvement was happening.

“We know we have a lot of work to do,” she said, “But everyone is willing to roll up their sleeves.”

The retreat, held at the Carolina Inn in Chapel Hill, also included representatives from the Alvin Independent School District of Alvin, Texas. Seven Rowan-Salisbury teachers attended, in addition to Moody and the seven board members. It cost approximately $10,000 for all 15 representatives to attend. Board costs were paid out of the board’s professional development fund and did not affect the budget.

Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264.