November 1, 2008


What’s on the agenda?

What is discussed in public varies among school boards


Bob Ellis/staff photographer       
Cortland Schools Superintendent Larry Spring, school board President Tom Brown and Vice President Lisa Hoeschele listen as  board member Mary Lou Bordwell, left, speaks at a meeting Tuesday. The board’s meeting are often short by comparison to a school board such as Dryden’s, whose meetings can stretch to four hours.

Staff Reporter

His voice matter-of-fact, Tom Brown read resolutions from his agenda and, each time, asked his fellow city Board of Education members to vote upon it.
“Resolved, upon the recommendation of the superintendent,” the brown-haired, bespectacled construction company owner said, followed by motions to approve personnel matters, sale of surplus equipment, an independent auditor’s report and other business.
Each item for this meeting on Oct. 15 passed unanimously without comment from the seven board members or Superintendent of Schools Laurence Spring, in their U-shaped arrangement of tables at the Kaufman Center’s board room.
The public meeting’s length: 10 minutes. Brown quipped, “Thanks for coming, everybody.”
That session was unusually short. The board’s other three meetings since September have lasted 30, 25 and 50 minutes, sometimes with questions by board members, answered by Spring.
Compared to other school boards in the region, Cortland’s meetings are all business and little comment.
As the management team for a school district, the superintendent and board of education follow varying styles of leadership, from contentious to quiet. The board is elected to represent the community’s needs and concerns about how children are taught. The superintendent is the chief executive officer who manages the district day to day, serving as consultant and technical advisor.
Brown and Spring say the Cortland board’s meetings take less time because Spring makes sure members know what business is coming a few days before each meeting, with information about possible issues.
Meetings of three area boards recently showed a difference in styles. Cortland members do not comment much, although Brown said that will change as budget season approaches. McGraw Board of Education members spoke a great deal, as their superintendent focused their Oct. 16 meeting on state assessment test results and district goals.
The Dryden Board of Education met for an hour in executive session and three hours in public Monday. The executive session was held to discuss tenure appointments for two teachers. The public session was lengthier than normal, said Superintendent of Schools Sandra Sherwood, because the board is updating its policy manual.
“But we do most of our business in public,” Sherwood said. “We want the public to see it.”
Cortland’s board tends to talk mostly out of the public’s eye, although Brown said that changes when the board plans its proposed budget, debating over items. Spring said board members offer opinions mostly about budget matters and students’ performance on state assessment tests.
The Cortland board often begins with an hour-long executive session. Such closed-door sessions are allowed by law, so a board can discuss confidential matters such as personnel or land acquisition.
Tuesday’s 50-minute meeting, which was televised by the high school video club, did not begin with an executive session. The meeting included reports by board members about last week’s annual convention of the New York State School Boards Association, a question by member Bonni Hodges about joining a lawsuit filed against the state by seven small city school districts, and comments by member Mary Lou Bordwell that she felt the atmosphere was more positive among junior high teachers than in the past.
Bordwell said before the meeting that board members rarely offer opinions, positive or negative, but that she wanted to. She campaigned last spring partly on a platform of offering a voice for school staff, as a retired physical education teacher.
The Cortland board’s bylaws say that no single member can speak for the board, although Brown does.
School governing boards began in 1721, when Boston’s local government decided they were overburdened with school-related matters on top of municipal business. Massachusetts ordered each school district in the state to form a board in 1826.
Other than larger cities such as Syracuse, boards of education are composed of individuals who might represent a constituency of parents but not a political party. Some can be highly critical of a superintendent’s management or leadership. Occasionally a board feuds with district teachers as they negotiate their contracts, or faces an angry public at budget time.
“The differences in style are based on the communities,” said Lee Peters of Cortland, a retired Onondaga-Cortland-Madison BOCES superintendent who is now a school consultant. “Some districts are famous for having ongoing battles. Some superintendents spend 30 percent of their time dealing with personnel issues.”
NYSSBA spokeswoman Barbara Bradley said people run for the board of education because they want to change something in the schools, or just have a say. The bottom line, she said, is that these are volunteers giving up their time.
“They might rubber-stamp what the superintendent wants, but they have a vision,” Bradley said. “They’re the ones being accosted in the grocery store, so they get a sense of what is going on, what the community is looking for and willing to pay for. These people give up a good chunk of their lives to serve.”
Open meetings law says executive sessions are for a legislative body to discuss land purchase, personnel issues and other topics that do not belong in the public realm. Peters said sometimes a board will be talking in private about a legal matter but then shift to another topic that should be addressed in public.
“It’s not usually intentionally done, but a board can get lazy,” Peters said. “I’ve seen superintendents tell board members, ‘We should be in public now.’ ”
Brown said the Cortland board has its executive sessions before the public part of the meeting because when the sessions were at the end, board members “could drift into topics that should be in public.”
“We don’t want to violate the law,” Brown said.
Spring said he does not wait until the meetings to introduce a topic because “I don’t want them to be surprised.” He sends board members an agenda and packet of materials five days before the meeting. Board members talk to him at random. There is no regular pattern.
“I make a recommendation,” Spring said. “The board doesn’t do things because I want to do things. We survey the landscape to see what information is out there.”
Brown said he meets with board Vice President Lisa Hoeschele before meetings.
“Our board meetings are not designed to be short, just to cover what needs to be,” he said. “(Spring) is on top of his game, yes, that is one reason, but the board members do disagree. Debate is a necessary part of this.”
It just does not always happen in public.


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