Superintendent, School Board still at odds

Lazaro Aleman
ECB Publishing, Inc.

The turf skirmishes between the School Superintendent and Jefferson County School Board continue to spark up the monthly meetings, if nothing else. Case in point: Superintendent Al Cooksey’s recent address to the board on Monday evening, July 13, relative to the many changes since his coming to office three years ago and the changes that he plans implementing in the coming school year, as well as other goings-on. The first thing Cooksey noted was the state-of-the-art devices that will now be available to K-12 students, thanks to the nearly $500,000 in grants that the district received for technology upgrades. The devices should help improve Screen Shot 2015-07-28 at 3.12.17 PMstudent performance, he said. Cooksey next talked about the changed school bus schedule that is being implemented for safety reasons. He said the bus schedule would remain the same for the elementary school, but it would change for the middle/high school. Effective the start of the new school year, Cooksey said the middle/high school would run 9 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. That way, he said, elementary and middle/high school students won’t be sharing the same buses, avoiding incidents such as the ones that marred the last school year. He offered that the later starting time for middle/high school students should cut down on the truancy and tardiness problems, as studies indicated that teenagers tended to go to bed and rise later, Cooksey said. He informed the board that Nancy Whitty would be the principal of the new alternative school, which was starting out with 10 students and could go up to 30 students maximum. “If we get more students we will have to hire more people,” Cooksey said, noting that the school was starting out with two teachers and two paraprofessionals, or instructional assistants. “The budget will supercede everything we do in this program,” Cooksey said, adding that two psychologists were helping identify the students who would go into the program. He said the district also was starting a gifted student program, so that such students would no longer have to transfer to other districts to get the services they needed. He said the district so far had identified 12 potentially gifted students and the anticipation was that this number could go up 16. Cooksey said Dr. Kim Perry would move into Whitty’s former position as communications director. He said that one of Dr. Perry’ tasks would be to contact the 168 students who were presently being home-schooled and trying to convince them to return to the district. That produced the first dissension from the board. School Board Member Shirley Washington questioned the wisdom of the latter effort. She didn’t see where Whitty’s position as communications director had been very effective, Washington said, suggesting that such expenditures had contributed to the district’s recent budget shortfall. “Then we get into a financial crisis and we have to lay off people,” Washington said. Cooksey countered that the reason for the layoffs was that the schools were failing, plain and simple. And the schools weren’t failing because he had been elected superintendent, he said. They had been failing before he came onboard, he said. As for the proposed changes, “Someone has to have the courage to make them,” Cooksey said. Washington returned to the matter of the communications’ position. What the district needed was a curriculum person, not a communications director, she said. “The curriculum is what we need to be focusing on to increase education in Jefferson County,” Washington said. “Not calling people to encourage them to come back to school.” “I disagreed,” Cooksey said. “Ms. Whitty worked on many areas. It was more than simply communications and taking pictures.” “I thought the board created positions,” Washington shot back. “But the way it is now, you create the positions and the board has no input. Positions are presented to the board after they’re created.” School Board Member Charles Boland agreed. He noted that although the superintendent was responsible for the personnel, the board was responsible for the budget, and salaries were part of the budget. “If we don’t watch it we’re be back in the same saddle next year,” Boland said, referring to the shortfall in the just ended fiscal year. Cooksey went on to talk about the STEM coordinator, STEM being the acronym for the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, areas of emphasis in today’s educational world. Washington again objected. “I have a problem with coordinators and coaches,” she said. “If they’re going to be housed in the schools, they’re not effective. The way we’re going about moving education in this county, I don’t see it moving.” Cooksey disagreed but didn’t dwell on the matter. He moved on to his administration’s efforts to reduce costs in order to keep the budget at the required three-percent reserve or better. He named, among the tasks being accomplished, the replacement of the lighting in district buildings and the going paperless as ways to reduce energy and other costs. “Our paper costs are out of this world at the schools and especially at School Board meetings,” Cooksey said. Washington questioned the need for the position of assistant superintendent that the district is advertising. “The position of assistant superintendent overlays other positions,” Washington said. “We don’t need an assistant superintendent position.” She reminded Cooksey that when he had been elected an assistant superintendent had existed and Cooksey had eliminated it, saying he didn’t need an assistant superintendent. “I made mistakes,” Cooksey conceded. He had also learned from his mistakes, he said. Chairwoman Sandra Saunders joined the discussion. She well understood that the superintendent was in charge of personnel and that changes needed to be made, Saunders said. But the School Board was accountable for the budget, and the superintendent’s decisions impacted on that budget, she said. Saunders suggested that meetings would go smoother if the superintendent made the board aware of proposed changes upfront, instead of springing them on the board at the last minute. If the board members had so many questions at meetings, it was because it was often their first view of the material, Saunders said. She, for one, wasn’t going to vote on anything that she didn’t understand or hadn’t had a chance to study, she said. She had asked previously that the board and staff hold joint workshops on coming agenda items prior to the actual meeting so that board members’ questions could be answered and potential problems ironed upfront, she said. And she was repeating her request, she said. “Let us be in on the planning, rather than presenting things to us full-blown,” Saunders said. “Without you keeping us abreast of things and everything you say you are going to do, today was a complete surprise to me. Let us know what’s going on. Since you’ve been in office, you haven’t done that. You can’t expect us to agree with you just because you present it. Let’s discuss things first so no one is surprised. If we can do this in workshops, the budget and personnel matters can work together.” “Yes ma’am, I will,” Cooksey said, seeming contrite. If similar past discussions are any indication, however, the superintendent appears to subscribe to the philosophy that it’s better to ask forgiveness than ask permission, especially when it comes to issues touching on his authority.