01/19/18 — Listening to counsel

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Listening to counsel

By Joey Pitchford
Published in News on January 19, 2018 5:50 AM

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Wayne County Public Schools lawyer Richard Schwartz addresses the board of education Tuesday during a work session.

The Wayne County Board of Education held a board retreat Tuesday, where members listened to a presentation on common legal issues and received advice on ways to alter board policies.

Richard Schwartz, with Schwartz and Shaw P.L.L.C. in Raleigh, gave the presentation. He urged the board to adopt a kind of new year's resolution ---- "to become a more effective, coherent and collaborative board" ---- and then set about explaining ways to accomplish that.

A recurring theme during the nearly four-hour retreat was the concept of a "chain of command" in dealing with community feedback and criticism. Board members have no power or authority as individuals ---- they only have the power to make decisions through majority vote ---- and Schwartz warned them not to make promises they do not have the legal standing to follow through on.

For instance, if told about an issue by a constituent, a board member does not have the authority to promise a remedy or say that they will see the issue handled personally.

Instead, they are expected to direct concerned community members to the proper administrative personnel, acting as a channel between the members of the community and the school system leadership team.

Board member Len Henderson gave the example of a discussion he recently had with members of the Hispanic community in his district, who told him that they were having trouble getting involved in the schools. Henderson said he had suggested working out a meeting between the principals and community members there, but Schwartz cautioned him to remember his role in the process.

"When Mr. Henderson gets that phone call, it's a good idea for him to gather information so that he knows what the concern is, what the issue is, what the desire is on the part of the constituent, and then tell that constituent 'OK, I'm going to call the superintendent about this, and I'll get back to you," he said.

"Then when he calls the superintendent, finds out what the superintendent's position may be, call that person back and say 'You should be expecting to hear from the superintendent or somebody in his office within the next two weeks, and if you don't, get back to me.'"

Schwartz emphasized that the superintendent and the leadership team are in charge of day-to-day management of the school system and making sure that everything goes through the proper channels will make getting things done far more efficient.

Schwartz also discussed the value of good leadership from the board in making sure the district retains its best talent.

"Effective leadership by the board inspires the staff to do their best," he said. "Dysfunctional leadership can demoralize the staff and lead to talent drain."

Furthermore, effective boards earn the trust of their communities, which is vital to getting much of anything done. Learning to trust each other and respect the trust of the public is an important way to hold the board together, Schwartz said.

The discussion also focused on specific board policies which Schwartz offered suggestions on. He said that the board could stand to simplify its meeting schedule, which includes a monthly board meeting, a monthly work session and committee meetings. In most boards with a committee system, he said, a work session is unnecessary.

Board member Rick Pridgen agreed. He said that getting rid of the work sessions would give the leadership team more time to focus on actually improving the school system, as opposed to preparing for and conducting meetings.