Merlene Davis: Childish display by school board won't benefit students

Herald-Leader columnistMay 24, 2014 

I got chills watching the recent Fayette County School Board meeting concerning proposed program and personnel cuts to balance the 2014-2015 school budget.

It seemed we had suddenly returned to the era of personal attacks and petulant behavior that caused us to live through four superintendents and two interims in five years.

That dysfunction between 1999 and 2004 helped no one then and it won't anyone now.

During the May 19 board meeting, anger seemed to emanate from two board members — Amanda Ferguson and Doug Barnett — that seemed less about nurturing students and more about playing to the crowd.

For his part, Superintendent Tom Shelton seemed to be giving both of them enough rope to hang themselves, rather than trying to invite a modicum of maturity to the scene.

Barnett was focused on the possibility that the cuts too closely mirrored suggestions written in a book penned by a consultant with the Gates Foundation's "Spending Money Smartly" grant, which Fayette County received in 2012. The book urged districts to "focus on formulas, not faces," Barnett said, and he couldn't support any budget that hampered student achievement or that decreased support for band, orchestra, music or the arts.

"Are we for consultants or for kids?" he asked. Then he declared, "I urge you to reject this budget tonight."

Barnett then rocked back in his chair and received applause from the audience.

Shelton later calmly said the book that so agitated Barnett had not been used in developing the school's budget.

The book may not have, but the grant did.

Fayette County applied for the grant "to help guide as we scrutinize spending and ensure that we are using best practices to weigh these critical decisions," according to the schools' website.

Couldn't Shelton have said that? Couldn't he have defused some of Barnett's anger by noting there were similarities between the book and the purpose of the grant?

Then it was Ferguson's turn to direct her anger toward Shelton, with board vice chair Melissa Bacon receiving some of the shrapnel.

Ferguson insisted Shelton had not warned board members of the shortfall prior to this year's proposed budget planning sessions. "This is not a good position to be in and I don't appreciate being put into this position at the last minute," she said.

Shelton said he had warned the board last year and was backed up by board member Daryl Love.

Like Barnett, Ferguson decried any cuts to music even after Shelton pointed out the cuts would be minimal, about 3.3 positions districtwide.

Meanwhile, Bacon entered the fray by pointing out the cuts were discussed at a previous meeting that Ferguson had missed. Miffed, Ferguson said, "I was on a field trip with my daughter. I'm not perfect like you."

I recall saying something like that when I was 14.

Earlier, when Bacon mentioned Ferguson walking out of another meeting, Ferguson retorted, "It wouldn't have happened... if I hadn't been talked to like I was an idiot by the superintendent."

"He works for us," she said. "And he seems to forget that sometimes."

It was embarrassing.

Bacon didn't need to point out Ferguson's absences and Ferguson didn't have to be snippy.

The only saving grace about the whole episode was that a majority of the students who were present at the beginning of the meeting, showcasing their talents, had left by then.

But it didn't stop there.

"I don't think the full story has been told," Ferguson said. "Perhaps someone would like to share it with us."

When Shelton asked what she meant, Ferguson inferred something was crooked in Central Office and maybe even with the auditors who are hired to catch irregularities.

She brought up two money transfers that occurred in November and December 2011 that totaled about $20 million. She asked Rodney Jackson, director of financial services, and Mary Wright, chief operating officer, if there were irregularities about those transfers.

Both said no. If there were, Jackson said, the annual audit would have pointed it out.

"Auditors we probably have had for too long, based on best practices," Ferguson said.

What was that all about? Was that a "gotcha" moment that landed flat?

If there have been problems with money being taken from the school system, shouldn't she have asked the auditors, the superintendent, and the financial director prior to the meeting?

If that move was too intimidating, couldn't she have voiced her concerns to the state auditor in Frankfort and asked for a review?

That's what most people would have done if they truly had a concern about pilfering from the school coffers.

Having an open and transparent process that leads to a working budget doesn't mean the folks involved should show their underwear.

Obviously the childish display was so disconcerting, the ailing school board chairman, John Price, sought a way to vote remotely so as not to endanger his health by coming in person to the next meeting.

The next meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, leaving only two days for a tentative budget to be passed by the state's May 30 deadline.

After the shrill, immature display I saw last week, I'm not putting any money on that happening.

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: mdavis1@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: merlenedavis.bloginky.com.

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