Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Board Leader Has Tough Job

Within minutes of being chosen Tuesday to serve as school board president, Pat Barksdale had a test of her mettle.

A young teacher, angry and in tears, came to the microphone to describe her path from being a 1996 Plainfield High School graduate to receiving a masters degree from Howard University and returning to the city to “give back” in the classroom.

“I was happy to give back,” she said. “I was happy to come to work every day,”

But just as she was about to buy a house, she was laid off.

“I was homeless. I had no job,” she said tearfully.

She cautioned the son of a board member who had just promised to finish college and “give back” that there is “personal bias” in the district.

Mentioning her long hours as a track coach, she told the board, “It hurts me for everybody to be unified. Nobody helped me out.”

Next up was a resident who demanded an answer on whether a speaker at a recent community forum was paid and if so, how did the hiring occur without a prior board vote. As a parent, she also asked why there were no textbooks at her son’s school.

On the first issue, she was told that her pending Open Public Records Act request on the matter would be ready today or tomorrow.

Schools Superintendent Paula Howard said some classes do not use textbooks. She said math classes may use journals and science uses kits, for example.

When the resident continued to press for answers, Homeland Security director Don Moye approached and appeared after a few minutes to be ready to take down the microphone.

School board member Rasheed Abdul-Haqq then took her part, saying to Barksdale, “She asked a question and nobody answered.”

Board member Lisa Logan-Leach also commented, “I’m not sure the question was answered on how the decision was made. I would hate for the taxpayer not to get the information.”

Howard explained the OPRA process in which a citizen asks questions in writing directed to a particular authority that can answer, but Abdul-Haqq said, “She asked a question here. She asked a verbal question here.”

Another resident then asked the board about the process of not allowing follow-up questions after a citizen has had three minutes at the microphone, specifically if a question was not answered or “dodged.”
“The question was not dodged,” Barksdale said. “We cannot dodge any question because we are a public entity (operating) with public funds.”

Finally, after more explanation of privilege of the floor, Howard asked past president Agurs Linward Cathcart Jr. to comment on the forum decision, which was made under his presidency.

Cathcart said as board president he had requested a community forum and had asked Howard to get a speaker. The resident who pressed for an answer noted the response was different when he asked, Another resident commented that a lot of Latino parents “have asked questions that are not being answered,”

Finally, after Logan-Leach said she hoped going forward there would be a “true dialogue,” Barksdale said, “This is not a ‘gotcha session.’ “

Barksdale noted that outside auditors are now combing the Plainfield district in a way other districts aren’t seeing, relating the intensity to the district’s Abbott funding status. She also said people with questions can go to “504,” the board’s headquarters at 504 Madison Avenue.

“A lot of times some of those concerns can be addressed long before they get to a board meeting,” Barksdale said.

“We need everyone’s effort,” she said, asking for help instead of controversy.

Logan-Leach said moving forward, she hoped “all nine board members” would know prior to a forum who the speaker was and the process of hiring the person.

“Hopefully, we won’t have some type of non-unity,” she said.

Board member Vickey Sheppard reminded the board about mandated training that members must take and said some districts don’t even allow privilege of the floor.

“Sometimes we’re not trying to dodge a question,” she said, but the board wants to respond in a “non-confrontational way,” again urging members to take training.

“We are not just looking for problems, we are looking for solutions,” Barksdale said.

The lengthy exchanges pointed up a few things, one being the range of concerns residents may bring to the board at public meetings. Some, such as personnel matters, cannot legally be discussed in public. Others may reveal a split among board members, even though the board ideally presents a unified front on its role in policy and budget matters. The school board, like the City Council, Planning Board and Board of Adjustment, has an attorney present in part to remind members of the parameters of their roles under the law.

Presiding over the board or council is not easy. Citizens often come up to speak in anger or frustration. Once they are at the microphone, some are tenacious in seeking answers. Timers may go off before a citizen is satisfied and then there is the delicate matter of how to move on. A security guard or police officer may be asked to intercede, which sometimes only escalates the emotional state of a speaker.

Public meetings can have a “warts and all” quality when tempers flare and citizens or elected officials or both move from decorum to “kitchen-sink” flinging of accusations punctuated by the gavel before the discourse sinks to one’s mother’s choice of military footwear.

Plaintalker offers best wishes to Ms. Barksdale, vice president Bridget Rivers, school board election winners Wilma Campbell, Martin Cox and Christian Estevez and all the board members, administration and citizens as the district moves into what may be a very challenging year of outside scrutiny.
--Bernice Paglia


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