School Board Surprised by Change

School Board Surprised by Change

Consultant to Wait Two Weeks for Approval

What a difference four days make.

After a work session Monday night, members of the School Board thought they would decide later in the week what projects, if any, to direct an independent auditor to examine more closely. Instead, board member Jane Strauss (Dranesville), the board's finance and budget committee chair, introduced a motion for new business suggesting a list of projects for a vote May 22. Apparently most other board members didn’t know about Strauss’s proposal in advance, not even Tessie Wilson (Braddock), who serves as the co-chair with Strauss on the audit project.

"I am disappointed this is coming up for new business and a vote in two weeks," Wilson said. "I am also disappointed we have decided to stick with only money we have and we're not including the county's $30,000 for this project.

"Mrs. Strauss, you and I were the board's designees to work with the consultant. I did not see this draft until tonight. As co-chair, if you want to call it that, I should have at least had a phone call."

WILSON WAS NOT the only board member kept in the dark about the proposal. Several members, crossing political lines, said they were surprised by the move, not only because a single member was proposing the list, but also because just four days prior it was agreed the board would be making a decision Thursday night.

Even the consulting firm's president expressed surprise at the change of events in a phone call earlier that day with Schools Superintendent Daniel Domenech.

"Mr. Gibson is very concerned. The expectation was you were going to decide this tonight," Domenech said. "He is concerned he is not going to be able to make the June time frame."

At Monday's work session, Greg Gibson, president of Gibson Consultant Group based in Texas, presented the board with a list of 36 items the firm felt warranted further review after it completed an overall look at the school system. The list, totaling nearly $1 million in additional audits, was broken into phases, with Phase II totaling $122,500. The board had original set aside $250,000 for the project and Phase II represents the remainder of that balance. In addition, the county Board of Supervisors has pledged $30,000, which represents the remainder of the money designed for the now-defunct Communities That Care survey, for the audit project.

As the discussion went on Monday night, the board was unable to reach a clear consensus as to which items should be included in Phase II or if the additional funds should be expended now or held for future use. The School Board is prohibited from taking a vote during work sessions. Instead, the general consensus was to make the decision Thursday during the regular business meeting, when votes are permitted.

"When I left the meeting, I was under the impression we were voting tonight. What happened between then and now to change that?" asked Mychele Brickner (At large) Thursday.

BOARD CHAIR Isis Castro (Mount Vernon) said protocol dictated items requiring a vote be introduced as new business and the vote held two weeks later. However, the board has voted on items in the past without first introducing them as new business, such as the superintendent's new contract in November, which also drew criticism from members of the board who felt they were kept in the dark until the last minute.

Strauss said she crafted the proposal based on what she felt was the wishes of a majority of the board members, including not allocating the county's $30,000 immediately. Many board members disagreed, saying they were under the impression a majority of members favored including a program evaluation over revisiting a technology feasibility plan that the school system completed in the early 1990s. Others would have liked to see the additional money allocated and both audits conducted as part of Phase II.

"I feel it would have been more productive if we were all informed beforehand. It is not productive to argue over who knew what when," said Kaye Kory (Mason). "We will have an opportunity to amend the motion. I don't agree with the list either and will probably suggest an amendment."

The board decided, by a 9-2 vote with Castro and Kathy Smith (Sully) objecting, to go ahead and direct Gibson to begin audits of the items that were not in dispute. They included audits on non-instructional performance measurements/annual reports ($25,000); enhancement of budget document ($15,000); improve special education service delivery ($15,000); improve equity, adequacy and understanding of special education staffing formulas ($30,000); and ensure proper identification and referral to special education ($10,000).