It doesn't look like there's much doubt that the new Democratic majority on the Wake County school board will restore the standing committees.
But, as noted in today's article, the discussion during Saturday's retreat came with some recriminations. Members of the new majority complained about how they felt things had been governed over the past two years by the ousted Republican majority.
Interestingly enough, things had been relatively smooth heading into that part of the discussion after the discussion on amending the core beliefs.
"I feel that the committee structure in the past has been valuable," said board chairman Kevin Hill. "I think we showed this morning we’re in harmony and can work well together.”
Hill said that committees had done the "grunt work" and 'heavy lifting" on issues for the board. In contrast, he was not a fan of the work sessions that have been used to replace the committee meetings.
"What I feel since we suspended committees, we’ve compacted board involvement in policy implementation," Hill said. "I’d like to reconstitute the committees.”
Board member Debra Goldman said they had "done some amazing work out of committees," adding she "loved chairing the policy committee."
But Goldman said they "found difficulty" when a majority of board members attended the policy committee. Then they'd repeat the discussion again during the committee of the whole meeting and later at the board table.
“The redundancy became a real critical issue for the board," Goldman said.
If committees are reconstituted, Goldman said there should be a limited number of them. She said they should also clarify the role of the committees and the committee of the whole.
Jim Huge, the meeting facilitator, said that when they set up committees they need to be very clear about their role and be respectful of staff time because of the tremendous amount of staff work involved.
School board attorney Ann Majestic added that Wake was the only district she knew that had issues run through committees, the committee of the whole and then the board at a regular meeting.
Superintendent Tony Tata then brought up the example of how staff had seven people spend 100 hours a week on time for the facilities committee.
“I’m okay with whatever we decide as long we realize the sum cost going in," Tata said.
Board member Christine Kushner said that given Wake's size, the heavy lifting should be done in committee while finding a balance that's sensitive of staff time.
Board member Chris Malone echoed the redundancy and time concerns.
“It’s very time consuming not just for staff but for us," Malone said. "A lot of us work for a living. “
But with a bond issue "coming in the not-too-distant future," Malone said there might be a reason to have a facilities committee. He said they'd have a reason to have a finance committee during budget season.
Board vice chairman Keith Sutton said that when decisions were made to suspend the committees "it was a the height of the dysfunction of the board."
Sutton said the committees are where "the work gets done" and "how we properly vet" issues. He said "I don’t think we can be afraid of redundancy."
"Having committees is s good government," Sutton said. "It’s how governmental bodies operate at all levels. If done right it will eventually reduce meeting times."
Sutton said the problem with the committees was how membership and leadership wasn't spread out. He said the imbalance in the committees led to mistrust about how the committees were being operated, which led to the redundancy."
"If there’s leadership and trust for the work of the committees, we won’t have the redundancy issue," Sutton said.
Board member Deborah Prickett pointed to the difficulty making it to all the committee meetings, which she said would have liked to have gone to in order to be fully up on all the issues.
Hill said that having a committee structure in place would address scheduling concerns. He said the committee chairs don't always have to hold meetings monthly.
Hill said staff has used committees to present and fine tune ideas. He said that if committees are functioning effectively then board meetings times will be cut in half.
Hill again unfavorably contrasted the committees and the current work session structure.
"Our work sessions have been show-and-tell with just in time delivery," Hill said.
Hill said getting the board information on Friday doesn't give them enough time to "kick" issues around. With work sessions starting at 3:30 p.m. or 4 p.m., he said the board has been "in a rush" to go through things before the regular meeting starts at 5:30 p.m.
Goldman brought up concerns she had with the committees and later the use of the former committee chairs as liaisons with staff. She said some committee chairs were considered to have too many secret meetings with staff and staff felt pressure to direct things a certain way.
Goldman said there were real issues with the perception of transparency.
Goldman said that if they were to restore the committee structure she would want to see committee chairs working with staff on a very limited basis.
“A committee chair shouldn’t be directing staff," Goldman said. "That’s the job of Superintendent Tata. Directing staff individually is not the committee chair’s job.”
Goldman said she also wants a true recreation of the committee of the whole "not a dog and pony show" even if it takes more time for COW meetings.
Board member John Tedesco pointed to how busy their schedules are already, noting some 45 grievance and appeal hearings scheduled for the next three months. He said they'd also have to balance committee meetings with their direct constituent work.
Per a suggestion from Huge, Tedesco said it might be good to establish an ad-hoc committee on how to establish the committees. One change Tedesco said he'd like would be to let board members have a vote in all committee meetings they attend and not just the ones they're formally assigned to.
"We need to understand governance," said board member Jim Martin. "Democratic governance isn’t efficient. If you want efficiency, you'd have a dictator. But we don’t want that."
Martin added that while they need to be respectful of board member time, they knew what they were getting into when they ran. He said they have to do the work.
Martin said he's seen over the last two years how board members are writing policies at the board table. He said that's not efficient.
Malone said he had "to somewhat disagree with Jim." He said the work was getting done. He also said that he thinks it’s been going pretty well without the committees.
“If we’re going to have to go to a whole bunch of committee meetings, you’ll have issues over time,"" Malone said.
Malone said the whole board should only vote on recommendations from the committees and not go back to having a whole discussion.
“Time and money does count for something," Malone said.
Sutton said the size of the school district and that there are only nine members "is not an excuse for poor governance." He said members can't make every committee meeting so that’s why you have to have trust in the committee chairs.
Board member Susan Evans said she can see the pros and cons of the issue.
"I want an avenue to do serious brainstorming and serious work," Evans said. "As an observer for the past two years, what has concerned me the most is a large majority of the time it has been presented by staff — I’m not criticizing staff. By the time it gets to the board table, it’s too far down the path for us to pick it apart.”
Evans said she's ready to have eight-hour long committee of the whole meetings if that's what it takes.
"I’m uncomfortable with the glossy level presentations the board has been getting recently," Evans said.
Tata said staff has been presenting the board with detailed information, citing the middle school math policy and the grading policy as examples.
"I don’ believe the staff has been providing glossy, facile information to the board," Tata said. "Staff has been working hard to bring a variety of important topics to the board for a decision."
Evans responded that she wasn't talking about every topic presented to the board.
Tedesco said he agreed with Evans about brainstorming more.
Tedesco also said that the board dysfunction that Sutton talked about occurred during the time committees were in place. In the last six months when there have been no committees, Tedesco said the board has gotten along a lot better, moved a lot of agenda items and calmed public debate.
Sutton said he agrees that the board has been working better. But he said you can't attribute it to the lack of committees.
Sutton also said that the idea of forming an ad-hoc committee to review how to establish the committees “is a bunch of crap.” He said that's the purview of the board chairman.
Huge said his recommendation is that Hill meets with Tata with Hill making the final decision.
Hill said he would be willing to meet with Tata.
Prickett chimed in that she didn't like how the term of "poor governance" was used before.
"I kind of take offense to that," Prickett said. "I feel like I provided good governance. I can’t let that go by. That’s not being respectful of everyone here. We made great progress.”
Huge stepped in to say that it's important for the board members to have trust. He warned that board mistrust could permeate the whole district.
"We have to be very careful that we don’t assign motives to anyone’s comment or behavior," Huge said.
Huge suggested that within 24 hours of hearing a statement that you disagree with that a board member should contact the other person or let it pass.
Sutton stepped up to apologize to Prickett if she was offended by anything he had said. Sutton said none of his remarks were directed at her personally.
Prickett accepted the apology but said that Evans had said something too. When that drew groans from the audience, Huge joked that they need to sing "Kumbaya" again.
Goldman requested that Sutton also be at the meeting with Hill and Tata about the committees.