At its regular meeting June 16 in Bay Minette, the Baldwin County Board of Education held over a vote on a proposed community task force until June 30 because it had not received enough nominations for the group from every feeder pattern in the county.
Proposed as a response to a call from the public for greater transparency and citizen involvement in the wake of a failed sales tax initiative, the school board has asked county commissioners and mayors from each of the county’s feeder patterns to nominate citizens to the task force.
Ideally, the school system would like to have 20 to 25 citizens participating, but the board received only 11 recommendations from the mayors, forcing a delay on the vote until the June 30 meeting to allow more time for nominations.
The board first discussed the task force at its June 4 meeting. Board president Shannon Cauley later sent requests to mayors of each city seeking nominations, while also contacting Baldwin County Commissioners asking for nominations from unincorporated areas in their districts.
“We want people who can be objective,” said Cauley, whose district represents Spanish Fort and parts of Loxley and Silverhill. “We want people who represent all of our different ‘stakeholders’ like parents, retirees, those without children in the system and others, because we all have a stake in the education system.”
Once formed, the task force will meet biweekly or weekly at Robertsdale High School at 5:30 p.m. in meetings open to the public. The group will seek ideas regarding school funding, curriculum, facilities, leadership and communication and will present those ideas to the board in September.
Cauley said it is important for the task force to be autonomous from the board and hoped its discussions would be about more than the failed tax referendum.
“This needs to be an opportunity for citizens to look at our finances and our growth patterns and where we want to be in five years,” she said. “The meetings need to be about the system as a whole.”
While task force members will serve voluntarily, board member Angie Swiger said it would be important for the public to have confidence in those selected, and the nominations should not be viewed as political appointments.
Baldwin County Education Coalition director Terry Burkle said the 11 individuals already nominated to the task force were approached by mayors and commissioners and had agreed to participate. A second list given to the board named people who had not yet agreed to join the task force but had been recommended by others in the community.
“It is important that everyone knows this group is not about micromanaging, this is about building civic capacity,” Burkle said June 18. “This is about coming up with a detailed work plan for the county. This is about the role the community has to play in getting us where we all want to be. We all have responsibilities as citizens to getting the school system where we want to be.”
Cecil Christenberry, who represents the Fairhope feeder pattern, said the task force should cast a wide net to help the board understand what citizens want.
“The question is, how can we do this without it being too political? We need to make sure it isn’t slanted,” Christenberry said.
David Cox, who represents the Baldwin County High School feeder pattern on the school board, said he wants as many people involved as possible, but predicted after two or three meetings the involvement will probably whittle itself down to those fully invested in the group.
Frequent school board critic James Hall commended outgoing Superintendent Robbie Owen for allowing more public participation, including taking questions from citizens, during work sessions and meetings.
“I can’t tell you how enthusiastic I am about how the work sessions and board meetings have gone lately,” Hall said. “I’ve been coming to work sessions and board meetings for several years now and the interaction, with you allowing people to ask questions in an open forum like this, is outstanding. I appreciate that. And I appreciate the effort to stream the meetings and post them online for everyone to view.”
The board unanimously approved its 2015-16 salary schedule, which will include an additional 12-month employee at both Daphne Elementary School and Fairhope Intermediate School. Owen proposed adding those two positions to increase safety and customer service, where there is currently only one 12-month employee in the front office in the summer.
“We have schools that have one employee that is 12 months, a secretary-bookkeeper who is answering the phones, trying to do bookkeeping, doing the registrar’s job and greeting people who walk in,” Owen said. “They are responsible for everything. It is tough for them, and if they take a vacation during the summer there is no one there.”
The board added the positions to the agenda during its work session after Owen’s suggestion. Christenberry said the previous addition of an extra office employee has been well received at Fairhope Intermediate School.
“After spending some time in [Fairhope Intermediate], I think we ought to do this immediately,” Christenberry said.
Owen said he would like to add new 12-month employees at every elementary school, but budgetary constraints only allow the board to consider adding them to schools with enrollments of 700-999 students. He said all schools with more than 999 students already have two 12-month employees.