Finding Answers

A question arose at last week’s meeting of the Warren County School District’s board of directors that is increasingly common among district residents: Where do you go to get answers on district issues?

According to district policy regarding board meetings, “Neither the board nor the administration will field questions directly from the floor.”

Board President Arthur Stewart broke with policy and addressed some of the reasons for the policy at the meeting.

Stewart said board members were not in a position to respond individually as they have no authority on their own. Board members only have authority to take action as a group, and then only when action is taken in accordance with the provisions of Article 5 of the state’s Public School Code of 1949.

Individual board members, according to Stewart, are also expected to avoid making statements which could be construed as binding the board or the district to a course of action or position unless the issue has been discussed by the full board.

Stewart noted there are forums available in which discussion between the community and the board can occur and a system is in place to handle any issues related to the district.

Board committee meetings offer what Stewart termed, “a more informal setting,” where more open discussion can occur among board members, administration and community.

According to official school policy, the meetings are designed for it.

“Board committee meetings are the key forums in which issues for the board are introduced, discussed, analyzed, and recommended for board action. The committee chairperson is to maintain an atmosphere in which citizens of the school district may enter into conversation regarding the issues,” according to policy section 2340.

The board has four standing committees Curriculum, Instruction and Technology; Finance; Physical Plant and Facilities; and Personnel/Athletics and Co-Curricular Activities which meet on the last Monday of each month at the Warren County Career Center to discuss policy to be forwarded to the full board for action. A standing policy review committee also meets as needed.

Those meetings are, however, aimed at discussion of policy and district-wide decision making. Things that would require board action.

But how do you know what might require a board-level decision?

While the Public School Code grants the board broad legally valid powers, in practice, boards do not micromanage day-to-day affairs. The code charges boards to, “establish, equip, furnish and maintain,” sufficient schools. Actually carrying out that charge is a task delegated to school administration.

“As a board of school directors, we’re there to handle the high order items such as goals and curriculum,” Stewart said in a phone interview. “The day-to-day minutiae… It isn’t appropriate for us to do that. It’s the job of the administration.”

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association outlines recommendations for how a board should operate, including suggestions to operate as a collective board, govern through policy and delegating implementation of board decision to the superintendent.

District policy regarding the board in the Warren County School District focuses on governance through policy as well.

“The board considers policy development one of its chief responsibilities,” section 2501 of district policy reads. “Proposals regarding policy may originate with a member of the board, the superintendent, a staff member, a parent, student, consultant, civic group or any resident of the district. A careful and orderly process will be used in examining such proposals prior to action upon them by the board. The board will take action after hearing the recommendations of the superintendent and the viewpoints of persons and groups affected by the policy.”

According to section 2510, “The steps in effective policy development include the following:

1. Identify the need for new policy.

2. Assemble background material.

3. Study, discuss, and agree on basic substance of new policy.

4. Draft the policy.

5. First reading.

6. Second reading (to be combined with first reading if desired).

7. Inform and disseminate.

8. Implement.

9. Enforce, evaluate and revise.

“Policy will be retired from use after a motion to inactivate the policy is approved by the board at first and second readings or when a new policy is adopted that is inconsistent with the former policy.”

For issues below the policy level, the district has a system in place to handle questions, inquiries and concerns.

“Questions and inquiries should be directed to the individual employee who is in the best position to respond to the question or inquiry,” according to policy section 2605. “If this person is unknown to the questioner or inquirer, a telephone call to the District’s offices will result in contact with the appropriate District employee.”

To address specific concerns or incidents, the district recommends addressing the concern at the level closest to the issue first. Policy recommends individuals bring issues first to the classroom teacher or staff member closest to it, then to the principal or supervisor overseeing the area in question, then to the director overseeing the topic of concern, then to the superintendent, and then to the board; and only advancing to the next level of administration if the issue is not resolved.

“Concerns will be handled as close to their origins as possible,” district policy section 2610 reads. “Therefore, concerns received within the above sequence will be referred to appropriate staff members for study and recommendation. The board will address concerns only after they have been unresolved by the appropriate staff level as identified.”

For concerns regarding individual district employees, the board requires specific documentation regarding the concern to accept it. Policy dictates investigation into the concern will be conducted by the administration, and only be considered by the board at the recommendation of the superintendent.

If an incident cannot be resolved at the lowest level or the level above it, the district recommends filling out a formal complaint form, which can be obtained at any district building or online by visiting the district website at www.wcsdpa.org and typing “complaint” in the search box.

The website also provides contact information for district staff, administration and various buildings; as well as a link to district policy.

Stewart cautioned the public to remain reasonable in tone when addressing concerns.

“All this negative talk. If you’re doing it because you think it’s helping, it’s not,” Stewart said. “It’s hurting the district and that’s not us (the board), it’s the kids. We’re a voluntary board. I run two businesses outside of my board duties. Throw all the barbs you want, but it’s the kids (who are) affected.”