Sunday, March 3, 2024

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Graham, NC 27253
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It’s always. . . “for the children” – especially when it’s politically expedient

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We could have written most of the story from this week’s joint meetings between county commissioners and school board members before the first member of either board spoke, or even stepped through the meeting room door.

School board members would, predictably, say – as they did when they had their chance – “We must really focus on the issue before us, not point fingers over issues of the past.”

That represents the unsurprising craving to avoid any accountability whatsoever for the mold predicament at hand.

No need to talk about the school system’s failures to handle maintenance, especially annual reports from the county’s health department (as outlined at some length in last week’s edition).

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Absolutely, no reason to talk about the school board’s controversial 4-3 votes (twice) to raid a total of almost $19 million from federal funds that could have been, and had initially been designated to,  address heating and air conditioning and air quality issues in more than half the schools in the county.

No, in a refrain that grows rather tiresome, more money for the school system – whether for mold, teacher raises, or anything else – is always. . . for the children, don’t you know.

It’s them, we’re thinking of. . . now – i.e., if not when we failed them and their parents and taxpayers earlier.

The school board’s deep-seated yearning to avoid what they call “pointing fingers” – which most people, especially voters, call “accountability” – may have worked with the county commissioners this week.

To our surprise and consternation, commissioners have been relatively compliant, so far unanimously willing to fork over the millions requested by the school system without having extracted anything (such as any form of accountability) in return.

With the exception of some verbal jousting from commissioner Bill Lashley who finally called school board member Ryan Bowden’s on the carpet for his self-serving soliloquy about caring “for the children” when, in fact, Bowden was part of the 4-3 majority that voted to use $10.5 million for staff bonuses instead of air quality issues, as had previously been planned.

Lashley’s lecture and Bowden’s and fellow board member Chuck Marsh’s tepid responses are worth watching on the video recording of Wednesday’s joint meeting.

The real challenge for commissioners is still on the horizon, especially for the next meeting on Friday, when the school system will inevitably want even more millions – this time at levels far above what exists in its undesignated pots of money governed by the commissioners.

Frankly, perhaps commissioners, if they want to grant anything, should agree to “loan” money to the school system, although we’re frankly not sure there is a procedure for that kind of arrangement.

Commissioners certainly shouldn’t keep giving away millions of tax dollars with no accountability of any sort.

But so far school board members, and the superintendent, have escaped rather unscathed from having to answer for their reckless spending decisions that depleted funds that might otherwise have been available to deal with mold and their cumulative failure to oversee school health and safety.

Instead, we’ve witnessed a series of theatrics during the sporadic joint meetings of the week.

But while school board members may have avoided having to answer for their actions (or inactions) this week, the real challenge will be what degree of responsibility voters will hold school board members during election season  next year.

Half the members of the current school board – chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves, vice chairman Ryan Bowden, and Donna Westbrooks  – will be up for re-election next year, as well as the fourth (thus far unfilled) seat on the board. [See separate commentary on that issue.]

We give credit to Ellington-Graves for having improved the civility and order at school board meetings and working cooperatively with the new superintendent.

But she and the other two incumbents will be hard-pressed to defend some of these spending and mold issues that have come on their watch.

Of course, whether there’ll be any other parents or citizens willing to put themselves forward as alternative candidates may also determine how much the incumbents actually have to defend their record.

If there are any challengers, however, the incumbents will have their hands full.

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