Editor’s note: In honor of Sunshine Week, Carolina Public Press investigated a local school board member’s complaint that Buncombe County Schools – the largest school system in North Carolina west of Gaston and Iredell counties – suffers from a lack of transparency and stakeholder involvement.
Among Baldwin’s top stated concerns: financial information, videotaping, redistricting
To Lisa Baldwin, getting detailed reports on how the largest Western North Carolina school system spends its money is no small matter.
In fact, in an era of shrinking public school budgets in North Carolina, the Buncombe County school board member reports she’s had difficulty getting that information, an allegation other school officials say is unfounded.
But serving some 26,000 students at 43 facilities across the county, with an annual budget of $218 million, the school system, she said, spends more each year than the entire city of Asheville – but sometimes it seems no one is watching.
What she wants, she said, is more transparency, a deeper commitment to parental involvement and a thorough analysis of potential cost savings at every level of the budget – to save teacher jobs and focus spending on the classroom.
“I voted against the budget this past year because there wasn’t any public input – it was developed behind closed doors, by a team of administrators,” she said.
It’s routine for the board to tweak the budget later through amendments. But Baldwin said she’s voted “No” on all amendments as a form of protest. Votes reliably tally 6-1, with Baldwin being the 1.
On March 1, the Buncombe County School Board heard a budget overview for the 2012-2013 school year, in a presentation from Superintendent Tony Baldwin (no relation).
It reflected the continuing budgetary squeeze on area schools, showing that state dollars will be reduced again next year by some $1.2 million. The presentation defined what the administration sees as a “new normal,” which threatens teacher jobs and more as it attempts to close the funding gap.
For her part, Baldwin has said her priorities range from seemingly simple things, like videotaping board meetings, to big things, like transforming Buncombe schools to a magnet system, with parents exercising school choice.
And, she said, administrators haven’t looked hard enough for ways to save money without cutting more teachers.
“Only 48 percent of the budget is going to the classroom,” she said. “What can BCS do with the budget to make sure we preserve teacher jobs? I see a lot of things.”
The options, she said, include privatizing custodians, transit and other services.
And some of her efforts are garnering statewide attention.
Earlier this year, the John Locke Foundation — the Raleigh-based think-tank that advocates limited government — presented her with an award. It’s the first time the society presented one of its James Knox Polk awards, named for America’s eleventh president, to a North Carolina school board member. The award also earned her a mention from the Asheville Tea Party, which that Baldwin is supported by many Tea Party members.
In presenting Baldwin with the award at an annual dinner in Raleigh on January 21, John Locke Foundation president John Hood remarked, “As North Carolina continues to struggle with an inefficient education system that produces an insufficient return on our tax dollars, we need leaders who believe in fundamental reform – and are willing to fight for it.” [View Baldwin's award acceptance in this video.]
Letting the light shine?
Not long after her initiation to the board in December 2010, Baldwin began a push to get school board meetings videotaped for broadcast on the web.
School board members and staff say they are interested in having meetings recorded for video broadcast, but argue that doing a quality job is expensive.
An estimate submitted by system Communications Director Jan Blunt that includes three camera positions, mics and cables to record board members and speakers, plus a provision to capture presentations made at board meetings came in at $80,000.
While those funds aren’t available now, Blunt said, audio from board meetings is available on the school system’s website.
If the board wants video recording, she added, it makes more sense to integrate it along with a refurbished Career Education Center that is planned to reopen in about a year. Funds for regular video production could then be absorbed into the budget for the facility remodel, Blunt told Carolina Public Press, and students could be involved in the project.
But transparency isn’t lacking when it comes to school operations, Blunt said.
“We have every document known to man on the budget on our website,” she said. “We get the highest grade for transparency from the John Locke Foundation on our website.”
Baldwin: School attendance is unbalanced
Ms. Baldwin’s interests go beyond the issue of transparency, however, to include efforts to shrink expenditures while preserving teacher positions.
The goal is to keep class sizes from swelling, she said, while balancing school populations among districts. A recurring focus concerns the lines that divide school districts – theoretically based on student numbers – which Baldwin argues haven’t been revisited in years.
The result, she said, is that some districts are over capacity, while others are building new schools that aren’t needed.
“They can’t tell me the last time they re-drew the attendance lines,” she explained. “It’s politically unpopular” to do so, she continued, “and this is an election year.”
The result is a lack of balance among schools, she said.
“The Owen District is overbuilt; they projected more growth than has occurred,” she said. “Meanwhile, Woodfin Elementary is at maybe 50 percent capacity.”
Overall, “we have over 5,000 empty desks in our schools,” Baldwin said. “If you’re environmentally conscious, you’d want efficient use of the buildings that we already have. The Koontz school in particular is the one I keep saying, ‘We didn’t need to build it.’”
Meanwhile, she said, some parents have reported feeling shut out of planning decisions that affect their kids, even where the state mandates parental involvement.
She gives the example of the School Improvement Plans, intended to be tailored to grow student achievement at each school. Parents in at least one school have complained the SIP meetings were being held behind closed doors, Baldwin said.
“I would have volunteered immediately to be on one of these teams, as a parent,” she added. “A lot of people want to come and take some responsibility for their children’s education, so it’s been frustrating.”
Working in the ‘margins’
All the while, board members and administrators alike have worked to marginalize her, she said, and deflect her attempts to get matters out in the open.
Her motions often fail for lack of a second, and she chafes at a rule requiring that motions be submitted seven days in advance of board meetings.
One clue of how she’s being received spilled out on Twitter back in January, with a Tweet from board member (and former Chair) Steven Sizemore who posted: “Contrary to suggestion by [Board] member Baldwin, [there are] no plans to redraw Roberson/Reynolds school district lines. Once again she’s off target.”
Sizemore confirmed he’d composed the message.
He also said he’s concerned that Baldwin finds support among Tea Party activists who share her interest in privatizing public school functions and reducing spending.
“Redistricting is a time-consuming, resource-consuming process, and it’s something communities have found to be very displeasing,” he said of Baldwin’s interest in redistricting.
“I appreciate the value of community-based schools,” he continued, “and the dedication families have to their schools. Moving district lines is not something that should be taken lightly, or for playing political games.”
It’s definitely not a widespread desire of the board, in any event, he said.
“It may be only with Ms. Baldwin and a few who share her ideology,” he said.
Ms. Baldwin has authored at least one post that appears on a local Tea Party website. In it, she argued for cost-saving measures the school system should adopt, such as cutting administrator compensation.
But it also argued for measures she said would boost transparency, such as moving each board meeting’s public comment period to the beginning of the meeting so the public can comment on proposed board actions before the votes are taken.
But Sizemore denied Ms. Baldwin’s assertions that the system’s financial operations are being hidden from view.
“Since I came on the board (in 2006) I’ve received very thorough, concise budgetary documents,” he said. “I’ve never had any difficulty obtaining information about the financial operations of the school system. I’ve never had any question about where the money came from, where the money goes or whether money is properly utilized.”
Meanwhile, Communications Director Blunt points out that the John Locke Foundation has graded the school system’s website with a “B.”
“Look at our website,” Blunt said. “You can see where we’re going. It’s a lot of information, so if you can’t find something, call us. We’re trying to be transparent and make it user friendly.
“We want to do this right.”