Our perspective: CCS policy proposals must be made public

On Nov. 1, 2010, the Catawba County Schools Board of Education approved changes to the school system’s policy for non-faculty coaches. That approval came after school system leaders began discussing changes to CCS Board of Education Policy 7.3500 in late June 2010.
CCS leaders can review, discuss and revise BOE policy at any time. When they do discuss issues affecting the entire school system, its administrators, teachers and students, we believe CCS should take every opportunity to make public these conversations — and especially current and proposed policy changes — by every means possible.
Unfortunately, when it comes to changes in the CCS non-faculty coaches policy, taxpayers and parents — even, apparently, some principals and coaches — in Catawba County probably didn’t know anything about changes to the policy until The Observer News Enterprise detailed them in its Thursday edition. Chances are, if you didn’t review CCS BOE meeting agendas or minutes, and you didn’t attend the Nov. 1 CCS BOE meeting or meetings during the summer and fall, you probably didn’t know the system was considering new restrictions that could prevent as many as 80 non-faculty coaches from continuing their work with young people at schools throughout the county.
Since late summer, The O-N-E has been aware of discussions about this policy, even privy to some comments made about the policy. However, despite several requests The O-N-E made to CCS, the school board’s attorney would not provide any information about proposed changes to the policy. As a result, this newspaper was unable to offer citizens details about policy changes for a school system their tax dollars support. Even after the amended policy was approved in November, The O-N-E continued to make requests for details about the policy and board-approved changes to CCS rules for hiring non-faculty coaches.
On Jan. 21, CCS provided a copy of the school system’s new non-faculty coaches policy to The O-N-E.
Area media outlets and the community at-large shouldn’t have to wait more than 12 weeks to learn about policy changes approved by the CCS BOE. In fact, North Carolina’s legislature granted public access to all draft proposals up for consideration by government entities in the state, including school boards.
Under N.C. Gen. Statute 132-1, all documents and papers — including drafts — related to “the transaction of public business by any agency of North Carolina government or its subdivisions” are public records. Further, public records and public information compiled by agencies of N.C. government or subdivisions, such as county schools’ boards of education, “are the property of the people,” according to the state statute. As a result, the public has a right to access and obtain copies of these public records in a timely, cost-effective manner.
This law is in place so citizens in North Carolina can keep apprised of activities of the governing bodies that make laws and policies and determine how citizen tax dollars will be spent. Even if citizens don’t find the time to attend government meetings, they have a legislatively granted authority to be informed about what happens there and the policies proposed and considered. When citizens can access information, they have the opportunity to become engaged participants in government. When citizens can access information from public records in-person, online or read about it in their local newspaper, they can arm themselves with knowledge. With that knowledge, they can offer educated opinions during open hearings at public meetings or to elected representatives who live among us.
When it comes to the policy for non-faculty coaches, CCS failed to make information available to citizens when it first denied and, later, didn’t respond to The O-N-E’s requests for draft policy proposals.
Instead, CCS only made proposed policy changes public and available to The O-N-E well after those policy changes were approved.
That’s concerning, particularly as CCS faces an extremely difficult budget-planning process, where programs could be reduced or eliminated; technology and resource spending could be slashed; and system employees may be prevented from accumulating overtime by completing double duty as teachers assistants and bus drivers.
On Jan. 24 during a CCS board retreat, the system’s interim superintendent Glenn Barger unveiled his recommended “local” expense budget. Media outlets received copies of that proposed spending, and The O-N-E reported on Barger’s recommended budget during newspaper editions that followed.
CCS Public Information Officer Carleen Crawford said copies of that budget proposal are available upon request at the system’s administrative office. According to N.C. Gen. Statute 132-1, this budget recommendation proposal and any other measures up for consideration always should be available to the public, and we believe the information should be quick and easy to access. In the modern-age of technology, the Internet is a great way for the school system to make public the documents and proposals deemed public record by state law.
However, until The O-N-E asked CCS officials about online availability of the proposed budget on Wednesday, that information was not posted on the school system’s website.
It can now be accessed at www.catawbaschools.net — and not a moment too soon.
Citizens have just a few days to explore the proposed budget before the CCS BOE holds a public hearing on it Monday at 5:30 p.m. Citizens can also read more about the proposed budget — and changes in the spending plan as compared to last year’s budget — in the Jan. 25 and Jan. 26 editions of The O-N-E.
After Monday’s meeting, school system leaders will hold a regular meeting Feb. 28. The CCS BOE can amend and adopt the local expense budget for the 2011-2012 school year. A public hearing is scheduled when that budget is approved at that meeting.
When it comes to the budget, we’re glad to see CCS officials making proposals available for public review and comment. Leaders should implement a similar policy when it comes to all public records, related to important decisions within the school system, as directed by N.C. Gen. Statute 132-1. Doing so will allow the community to have an opportunity to become involved — and offer feedback — for a school system in which we all have so much invested.