The Liberty County Board of Education held a called meeting Wednesday for a legal discussion from state education-law expert Phil Hartley.
Hartley, of Harben, Hartley and Hawkins law firm in Gainesville, discussed the board’s roles and responsibilities during the meeting, which was scheduled at the board’s request.
"We asked him to come and talk to us so that we can get better as a board, and when we get better as a board, the entire school district improves," District 3 representative Carol Guyett said after the meeting.
Hartley began the presentation by discussing how boards are governed by both state legislation and the rules of their accrediting body, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
According to the preamble of SB 84, signed into law in May 2010, serving on a school board of education "should be characterized and treated differently from other elected offices where the primary duty is independently to represent constituent views."
"Believe it or not, they say that you’re totally different from the county commission, from the city council, from the general assembly," Hartley said. "And they say these other people are elected with the primary duty to independently represent constituent needs … but the general assembly says that’s not why you were elected."
Hartley cautioned the board about how members interact with parents because the public often misunderstands the board’s role in policy making.
Board member Carol Guyett agreed. After the meeting, she cited examples of situations where parents expect board members to intervene in school system operations, from things like controlling the light usage on athletic fields to influencing hiring decisions.
But when parents consult with board members to express their concerns, they have false expectations that board members can work behind the scenes to solve problems, Hartley said.
In reality, most board members simply relay the parents’ concerns to the superintendent and other administrators — and that’s all they should do.
"It’s a very fine line between listening to your representatives and representing them and micromanaging the day-to-day operations of the school system," Superintendent Judy Scherer said after the meeting. "The parent expects them to do something about (the situation), yet if they get involved in that, then they take away the authority of the principal or assistant principal or whoever might have dealt with the issue."
"Quite frankly, I think there is entirely too much micromanaging by some board members," board member Becky Carter said in an email. "When we micromanage, we tend to lose sight of the big picture. It also undermines the authority of our leaders."
One way to eliminate these problems is to clarify the public perception of the board’s role, Hartley said. When parents approach board members about personal issues, the members immediately should refer them to school personnel.
Guyett said she came away from the meeting thinking that the board needs to write a policy for how to handle such situations.
"As board members, we all handle things differently, and we would get a better result if we all handled them the same way," Guyett said about enacting a protocol. "If I have something in writing that says this is how this is handled, then it takes away my discretion to a large part."
Having a written policy also would help demonstrate to parents that managing daily school system operations is not a role or responsibility of the board, Guyett added.
The bottom line, Hartley said, is for the board to ensure it is "maintaining the accreditation and the opportunities it allows the school system’s students."
Hartley also discussed the board’s role in maintaining accreditation through SACS, which says the board’s job is to "recognize and preserve the executive, administrative and leadership authority of the administrative head of the system" and to "ensure compliance with applicable local, state and federal laws, standards and regulations."
"SACS operates not through you, but through your superintendent," Hartley said. "The concept here is that the superintendent is the CEO that runs the district on a day-to-day basis. … The board of education’s role is to set goals, criteria, strategic plans," he said.
Hartley also spoke to the board about the need to comply with the state’s Sunshine Laws, which require meetings and records to be open to public view.
Meetings are defined "as a gathering of a quorum of the (board) or any committee of its members … at a designated time and place at which any public matter … is to be discussed or presented or at which official action is to be taken," the law says.
There are four topics that are exempt from open meetings and allow the board to move into executive session: personnel issues, real-estate acquisitions, individual student matters and attorney-client conferences about pending or potential litigation.
Hartley emphasized the importance of compliance, as actions perceived to be noncompliant tend to be misconstrued by the public, he said.
"The whole idea behind the Open Meetings Act was to build public confidence in government entities so that it doesn’t look like backroom politics," Scherer said. On the flip side, the open-meetings requirements sometimes makes it hard for a board or governing body to have an open and frank discussion, Scherer added.
Hartley cautioned the board about using one-on-one communications to avoid a quorum and therefore keep the decision-making process in the dark. He added that neither the current state attorney general, Sam Olens, nor his predecessor, took kindly to governments that attempted to sidestep transparency.
Last week, the Georgia Supreme Court upheld a Bulloch County court ruling that requires the city of Statesboro to pay the legal costs of citizens who sued it for violating the state’s open-meetings act when Mayor Joe Brannan and the Statesboro City Council discussed its fiscal year 2011 budget — and eliminated the position of police and fire chiefs — in so-called secret meetings in 2010.
For her part, Guyett said she welcomes the open-meetings requirements.
"We represent our constituents in our district on the Liberty County Board of Education. Therefore, the things that we do directly affect our taxpayers," Guyett said. "We should not be allowed to enter into contracts or to spend money or to make decisions to spend money in privacy, because we’re not spending our money — we’re spending the public’s money."
Board members Verdell Jones, Marcia Anderson and Chairwoman Lily Baker did not return the Courier’s calls by press time.