Monday, June 26, 2000

Board cooperation the key

By Andrea Tortora
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        COVINGTON — Now that the superintendent has stepped down, much of the credit or blame for the performance of Covington's schools could fall squarely on its school board.

        How well board members work together will be a deciding factor determining how well the district follows state recommendations for improving operations and education offerings.

        Board members agreed in interviews last week that the five-member board must find ways to cooperate and set aside persistent differences. But it remains unclear how or whether that will happen.

        The school board and an interim superintendent are charged with implementing dozens of changes in curriculum, teaching methods and day-to-day operations outlined by the state. Board members will need to take whatever actions — minor or radical — that support the changes, said Brad Hughes, spokesman for the Kentucky School Boards Association.

        “These are not trivial issues,” he said, “and as such are going to be more frustrating.

        “They (board members) don't have to be 5-0, but they need to find a way to continually make progress and demonstrate to the community their commitment to work together for the kids.”

        The task won't be easy for Covington's board, which over the past year and a half has gained a reputation for allowing personalities and differences in opinion to cause nearly insurmountable tensions.

        There were tensions over educational and operational issues, but also over issues of order and the process and content of meetings. Board members often didn't get along. And disagreements with Superintendent James Kemp led to his resignation, which is effective Friday. .

        Even after the resignation was announced, tensions came to a head last month, when several board members walked out of a meet ing.

        Chairman Hensley Jemmott had refused to allow two board members — Joseph U. Meyer and Col Owens — to make motions. When a minister, invited to speak by Mr. Jemmott, started questioning board members' loyalty, four of the five walked out, leaving Mr. Jemmott in the room.

        The meeting was videotaped by someone in the audience. Mr. Jemmott gave a copy to the state Office of

        Education Accountability (OEA), which investigatesallegations of wrongdoing in schools. The OEA has no authority over school boards.

        Board members say that the meeting was an aberration, a boiling point of emotions that had been heating up for months.

        Now, they say, they have something they can focus their individual passions on — the recommendations of the state audit.

        Mr. Jemmott said he wants members to pursue changes in the district's schools with vigor, using the state reports as a guidebook.

        “All the board members have said in one way or another that the audits are a blueprint for changes that need to be made,” Board member Jim Vogt said. “We don't all agree on the details, but it provides an overall framework to work from, which can be helpful as a means of pulling together.”

        Mr. Meyer said the most difficult impediment to the board's cooperation was the serious split in opinions regarding the quality of services offered by the district.

        “Some of the members believed firmly that student achievement levels were unacceptable and others didn't see it as that serious of a problem,” Mr. Meyer said. “They felt it was excusable or understandable under the circumstances.”

        The state audit process has given the district “an objective and independent” account of the status of Covington's schools, Mr. Meyer said.

        The board might also benefit from training offered by the state school boards association or by other groups. Mr. Moreland and other board members spoke with Mr. Hughes about training options.

        Mr. Hughes said Covington's school board is not the first to grapple with a volatile mix of emotions, personalities and a desire to do what's best for students.

        “I don't doubt they will move beyond this,” Mr. Hughes said. “They are carrying the weight of a significant portion of the future of that community in what they are able to accomplish.”

        Members are already pulling together, Mike Fitzgerald, another board member, said.

        “We can work as one if we put our egos aside and concentrate on what's important, which is the kids,” he said.

        Mr. Owens added that he hopes the board focuses on the things members already agree on. Mr. Vogt said the board can do that.

        After all, he added, the school board did unanimously vote to conduct the state audits and to hire Mr. Moreland.


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