Wednesday, March 16, 2005

School board "doesn't want individual members to raise issues or pose questions"

The following letter appeared in the Gazette on March 16, 2005:

School board: The real conflict of interest

School board member Sharon Cox appears quite concerned about a potential conflict of interest involving newly elected board member Valerie Ervin ("Ethics panel's refusal may not end controversy," Feb. 23 article). Perhaps her time would be better spent examining the existing conflict of interest between the board as a whole and Superintendent Jerry Weast.

The board gave Dr. Weast a long-term, ironclad contract. Concerned that he might accept another offer, the board in 2001 agreed to renew Weast's contract long before it was due to expire. They also agreed to penalty provisions including payment of a year's salary if they did not renew his contract in 2003. The contract was renewed; it now runs until 2007.

Given this "vote of confidence" in Dr. Weast, what incentive does the board have to scrutinize his stewardship of the system? Even if they wanted to, the part-time school board, without an independent staff, doesn't have the resources to seriously question information provided by the school system.

In her campaign, Ms. Ervin emphasized the need for closer scrutiny by the board. But Ms. Cox thinks Ms. Ervin should instead focus on being "part of the team." In doing so, Ms. Cox gives voice to what many people have long suspected. The current board does not want individual members to raise issues or pose questions.

One way to end this real conflict of interest would be to eliminate the board. This has been done in many other parts of the country. A school director would report directly to -- and serve at the pleasure of -- the county executive. That would make the position of the director of public schools similar to all other county agency directors. Accountability would rest with the county executive.

This would be a welcome change from our current system where the board claims it is not responsible for personnel, budget, or policy decisions -- depending on the particular issue and level of controversy -- while the county executive and County Council sit comfortably out of the fray.

Since the largest part of the county budget is dedicated to the public school system, why shouldn't the county executive be held directly responsible for the performance of the schools, the same way he or she is held accountable for all other functions of county government?

Eric Brenner, Silver Spring