What started as a fairly routine item concerning professional development for teachers quickly grew into a passionate debate among Bulloch County school board members about spending limited funds.
The discussion also led to the board receiving legal advice that appeared, according to an attorney for the Georgia Press Association, to run counter to the Georgia Open Meetings Act.
During its regular session Thursday evening, the Bulloch County Board of Education considered a recommendation by Superintendent Charles Wilson to allocate $132,750 to have 86 teachers participate in the Georgia Leadership Institute for School Improvement Base Camp and Leadership Summit this fall.
Typically, school districts use federal Title II, Part A money, which can be used for professional development. But the regional program manager tasked with approving the use of these funds indicated to the Bulloch County school system that it hadn’t provided all the required documentation for the money to be used for this program.
As a precaution, in case the district was not able to get approval to use the federal money, Wilson suggested the board commit to using the district’s operating funds to pay for the training.
The reason, he said, was to show that the board is committed to instituting a “continuous improvement culture” from the district’s top administrators to the schools’ staff. Top administrators and some board members took part in the same institute last year, and several said the experience and insights they gained were invaluable to helping them improve how the district functions.
The biggest snag is that the district is still developing its strategic plan, which Wilson said will serve as the foundation for all decisions the district makes going forward. That process will be finished by the end of the month, and then the district would be able to submit the final piece of documentation required to the manager in charge of approving the use of the federal money.
But time is not on the district’s side. The institute’s first session starts Sept. 9, meaning that without a commitment soon, the institute would need to allow another district to take Bulloch County’s place.
“It’s not, if we don’t do it we’re going to lose a year,” board member Steve Hein said. “If we don’t do it now, why would we do it in a couple of months. I mean there’s a certain linear logic to it. We erode all our work, throw it in the rearview mirror, it’s done. ... If we don’t do it today, we’re not going to do it next year.”
But for some, the decision came down to a choice between educating teachers and educating students.
“If I have to choose between those funds to who to allocate to, because that’s what it seems to me I have to, then at this time I’m not sure I can,” board member Anshul Jain said. “I want to because this is great, and we’ve already done part 1. To abandon it now is kind of heartbreaking.”
After the discussion continued for several minutes with no resolution, the board held two votes. The first, on the superintendent’s recommendation, failed in a 4-4 tie, with Jain, Vernon Littles, Chairman Maurice Hill and Vice Chairman Mike Herndon opposed to committing local money to the development program.
The second motion was for board members to take a “proxy vote” by email should the district not be allowed to used federal money for the training institute. Board attorney Susan Cox advised the board it could do that so long as the vote was “ratified” in the next public meeting. The board unanimously approved that.
Before the board went into executive session, a Statesboro Herald reporter expressed concern to Cox that an email proxy vote by the board would violate the Open Meetings Act. She reiterated her position.
On Friday, attorney Charlie Aaron, who works with Cox in the same law firm, responded on her behalf citing an amendment to the open meetings law that allows boards to hold a teleconference. Aaron did not respond to a reporter’s concern that an email proxy vote is not the same as a teleconference.
David Hudson, an Augusta attorney who represents the Georgia Press Association, said the Open Meetings Act does not allow for an email proxy vote and that such a vote is not a teleconference. Also, he said, the teleconference, like a regular in-person meeting, would have to have proper notice and a place provided where the public would be able to monitor the teleconference.
Wilson, made aware of the Herald’s open meetings concerns, said Friday that he would recommend the board hold a called meeting should the need arise to vote on whether to approve local money for the institute. He added that he is confident the district will be allowed to use federal money, which would negate the need for another board vote.
Jason Wermers may be reached at (912) 489-9431