Greetings Dr. Clemons,
Let me start off by welcoming you to Gloucester County. Granted it is a bit late for such a gesture, but due to circumstances that manifest well before your arrival; many of us have become mistrustful of anything or anyone associated with our school administration and School Board. My intent is not to ridicule, but rather to share insight from another perspective. Since your arrival here; I have heard you remind everyone numerous times that you have no control over that which happened in Gloucester before your were hired. I agree with you 100%, however replaying that statement does little to mitigate the problem of mistrust. During the May 5th Board of Supervisors meeting you said the BOS needs to trust you and the School Board. I absolutely believe the BOS should be able to trust the Superintendent of our school system and the School Board. More importantly the people and citizens of Gloucester County should be able to have trust in our school system. Unfortunately, and due to circumstances that predate your arrival here, we do not have the pleasure of such trust at this time. You have likely received a large helping of stories about what occurred in the past and my story is way too large and detailed to get into here. Therefore, I will only offer a few suggestions that may help you get the bridge of cooperation built.
During the last two budget processes, the County has taken great steps towards enhancing transparency. Among other things the BOS required just about every entity requesting money to appear before them to justify their requests. We asked that the budget work sessions be televised and they were. On the other hand; when you folks do your budget, it is all done in secrecy. There are limited documents associated with the school budget, but most importantly, none of us know or understand where any of the money is going or what we are getting for it. Mr. Bazzani’s question pertaining to floating teachers is a good example of something that should be vetted in public during the school system budget process. Conducting the people and citizens business this way will provide clarity and enhance our faith and trust.
Another way to help restore trust would be for all school administration and School Board email communications to occur utilizing only school system email accounts. Attempts in the past to obtain school system email information under FOIA from School Board members’ and school system employees’ private email accounts have had negative results. We all have a constitutional right to know what is going on in our school system and local government. Likewise, our elected officials and employees have a responsibility to ensure accountability of government communications/documents and to ensure our unfettered access to such information authorized by FOIA.
I have submitted numerous FOIA requests to the school system and have been charged considerable fees for information. In fact I was informed that it would cost me in excess of $800 to obtain activities funds accounting information. I could not afford that one. I have also requested considerable information from the County and have been charged very little if any. In the eyes of the people and citizens; the excessive fees charged by the school system are viewed as retaliation and as a deterrent mechanism. Facilitating and welcoming other insight on what is going on in the school system would certainly help to establish trust.
The ineffective and community splitting relationship between the School Board and BOS continues to cast a negative shadow over Gloucester County as a whole. Some people say it is the BOS fault while others say fault lies with the School Board and school administration. The finger pointing and blaming should stop immediately and be replaced with consolidated and focused efforts to ensure the academic success of Gloucester’s children above all else. Such cannot be accomplished by merely throwing money at it, causing negative media attention and splitting the community. It will take everyone working together without distracters like power struggles, politics and secrecy being included in the equation. Potentials for consolidating services with the County and other potential cost saving measures should be thoroughly investigated and vetted. Committees that include members of the community could be formed to gather and format various types of data the two Boards will need in order to make informed decisions.
To sum it all up; the number one thing we all want is transparency. We want to see and hear discussions on where all of the money is utilized. We want to hear and see. It appears most of the BOS does too.
Thank you for your efforts since becoming a member of the Gloucester Community. I firmly believe after observing you over the past several months that with your expertise, our school district can achieve many great things. That is if the County, school system and community start working transparently together.
Kenneth E. Hogge, Sr.
And the response?
Thanks for the email and welcome. I greatly appreciate it. Also, thanks for the suggestions. I look forward to continuously working with the School Board, Board of Supervisors and the entire community in building relationships that foster trust and collaboration. That is why we started the process this year on developing a Comprehensive Plan that sought community input. I definitely want the community to be aware of what direction the school division is taking, what it needs and how we can work together to accomplish those goals. It will be an ongoing process and I welcome your participation. As far as the budget is concerned, I believe we have expressed our needs appropriately to the Board of Supervisors regarding our current request as this information has been previously shared (since my arrival) that dates back to September of 2014. I also know that the School Board had discussion with the BOS about the operating costs of reinstituting two middle schools before my arrival. In addition, I have also had conversations with the BOS about our needs and why we need the items requested. However, with that being said, we will be looking at revamping and refining our process next year for greater clarity. Specifically, our final budgets (2014-15 final is online on our homepage/2015-16 will be forthcoming later this spring) are much more detailed than what is initially shared with the BOS as they see the line items by categories without detailed explanation. This is the way that it has been done by GCPS over a number of years and I did not change that process this year. Next year we will provide a detailed version at the beginning instead of afterwards as we all want the process to be as transparent as possible. Please know that we will make every effort to be good stewards of all money that is appropriated to us. In closing, thanks so much for your time and have a great weekend!
Walter R. Clemons, Ph.D.