This might turn into a saga,"School Board Meeting: Part 2." **
DeSoto County School board held a meaty and important session last night. Its purpose was to set the millage rate for next year’s property tax payers (the millage goes up from 7.210 mills for the current year to 7.45 mills for the upcoming year), but before the board’s unanimous vote to place the legal ads and public notices for this, four of five members present – and the one member of the public who was there – were immersed in a robust, meaty, and highly informative look at the district’s funding prospects for the next fiscal year. It was not a pretty picture; the message was a familiar one -- a small, rural school district having to do more with less, within a state that seems not to believe that education is its most important priority, and doing it in times of great stress for the community and the people in it.
Preliminary figures in the first draft of the 2009-2010 schools budget show last year’s bottom line of $42.5 million is expect to dwindle to $39 million. And even that reduced number is likely to shrink further, pending some final calculations about how much the school district can realistically expect from local taxpayers (the tax base has contracted as property values have declined).
Old Word Wolf is going to post more detail about this, but first a digression. OWW was the one member of the public present. Why? It may be because the school board’s published agenda for the regular meeting made no mention of the budget backgrounder or the millage decision that came up for a vote. The finance director’s presentation came under the heading of “staff report,” without even a sub-title to indicate it was the finance director who would be presenting the show and tell.
That's the boring part: Now the good stuff
The trouble started when OWW went to the podium to ask the board to do two things: make the detailed budget available in the town library, and to publish agendas that revealed more about what would actually be heard, discussed, and voted on. Not even the press, it seems, had been alerted to the depth and breadth of the evening's business and was conspicuously absent.
When the meeting adjourned a few minutes later, Adrian Cline, the superintendent of DeSoto County schools accused OWW of going to the supervisor of elections to dig up information about him, of harassing his staff, and being sarcastic.
The accusations came in the wake of OWW greeting the school board chairman, Rodney Hollingsworth, and gently lobbying him to place a copy of the budget in the public library. Before the chairman could respond or discuss the public-records request, Superintendent Cline interrupted to bellow, “You’re not going to find what you’re looking for!” Since OWW doesn’t know what she is or isn’t looking for, the superintendent’s own clarity on this point was nothing short of amazing in a mentalist-fortune teller sort of way.
Unfortunately, a low-key discussion regarding the availability of a public document fast escalated into a red-faced, eyes-bulging set of snorts and accusations by the superintendent, who was wild to call names and impugn motives.
What's a Citizen to think?
The take-away message is pretty clear: (1) The public is not welcome to know what’s on the school board’s agenda (2) The school board membership's reputation for meekness and acquiescence has a clear reason for being: the superintendent acts like a bully (3) and the superintendent seems unwilling to release even the most public of documents without a boat load of paranoia, suspicion, and nasty name-calling.
** See "Muzzle the Press" of a couple of weeks back.