Friday, December 9, 2022

Brunswick School Board gives Superintendent emergency powers as Covid-19 tests quintuple [Free read]

Brunswick County School Board held an emergency meeting Friday to consider temporarily transferring powers to Superintendent Jerry Oates. (Port City Daily screenshot/Brunswick County Schools)

BRUNSWICK COUNTY — Brunswick County Board of Education has expanded Superintendent Dr. Jerry Oates’s powers as state and federal restrictions surrounding Covid-19 tighten almost daily.

The board increased Oates’s authority to enter into contracts without prior approval, increasing the allowable contract amount to $250,000 from the $100,000 per system policy. Oates now also has the power to temporarily waive board policies to effectively respond to needs that arise as schools remain closed while coronavirus cases proliferate across the state.

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Presented with a resolution recommended by the North Carolina School Board Association’s lead counsel, Brunswick County School board amended several items to the emergency power transfer. The recommended resolution would have granted Oates unlimited spending authority; school board member Ed Lemon motioned to cap it at $250,000 instead. Lemon also suggested removing “modifications to the school calendar,” a power included in the North Carolina School Board Association template.

With Lemon’s suggestions, the board approved the emergency powers order 4-0. Board member Gerald Benton abstained from voting because he did not want a vote against the item to be perceived as a lack of confidence in Oates (a rarity for most all elected boards, abstaining does not constitute a “yay” or a “nay” vote).

The board’s emergency meeting was live-streamed to a peak audience of 379 Friday, with parents and teachers chiming in in the comment section as in-person gatherings are being discouraged under a federal suggested limit of 10 people or less.

No public comment period was included in the emergency meeting agenda. Regardless, former Superintendent Les Tubb spoke before the board, urging the members to transfer powers to Oates to cut down on bureaucracy while making emergency decisions.

The temporary resolution remains in effect for the duration of Governor Roy Cooper’s state of emergency executive order 117. A need to utilize school buildings in the event of an overwhelmed hospital system or transform them into temporary daycare for essential emergency response workers’ children may present itself in the coming days and weeks.

With the resolution in place, this option can be activated more quickly than requiring the convening of the full board for approval.

Thursday, Brunswick County announced its second presumed positive case of the virus. The number of people getting tested for the respiratory illness has increased fivefold since Monday, with 142 county residents awaiting results and 26 confirmed negative tests. Nationwide, access to testing has been limited and riddled with inconsistencies. Expanding testing availability allows communities and health officials to better track and understand the true scope of the virus’s spread.

Also Thursday, the North Carolina Department of Human Health announced there is now evidence of community spread of the virus. This means officials can no longer track each individual presumptive positive case back to travel or another person who has contracted the virus. North Carolina has 137 confirmed cases of the illness as of Friday morning; the nation has 10,442 cases and 150 deaths.

Power transfer

The board’s attorney, Rick Green, made a plea to the board that because they trusted Oates, “serious times require serious action.”

The resolution includes the authority to adjust curriculum, work schedules and assignments, and adjust delivery of school-provided meals — all actions Benton said Oates has already taken this week without prior board approval. As of Thursday, Brunswick County Schools (BCS) had checked out 3,481 devices across the district, close to one-third of all students. Chromebooks were in students’ hands before he heard of the plan, Benton said.

Also as of Thursday, the system served 6,482 meals in total since implementing pick-up hours at the system’s three high schools. The press release announcing that plan was already scheduled before Benton said he found out.

Making clear he trusted Oates, Benton said he was completely opposed to the resolution. “The whole purpose of us being elected is to provide oversight,” Benton said. “The people gave five of us this power. This is [giving] too much decision-making power to one person.”

Conversely, board member Catherine Cooke said she thought the spending amount could be increased to $500,000. Cooke also suggested the school system should issue a firm notice that in-person check-in or meetings on school grounds should cease immediately, as some teachers are under the impression they need to work at school in order to be paid. Action was not taken on Cooke’s suggestion.

Noting that education is paramount, Cooke said the ongoing crisis has brought about more important concerns: “Family survival has got to come first.”

Remote working and learning is not required at this time for system employees or students — it remains only a recommendation.

Lemon, bringing up a conversation with his daughter, a BCS employee, said only 15 out of 70 of her students are actively involved in remote learning. “If she’s got 55 kids, didn’t pick up a chrome book, aren’t online, how can you go forward under those circumstances?” Lemon asked. He was concerned staff was expending too many resources formulating a continued education plan when remote engagement numbers were low at some schools, creating a planning issue with some children too far ahead and others too far behind. “We’re spinning wheels to try to move forward with a handful of kids.”

Board member Charlie Member, whose daughter is also a BCS employee, said remote participation in her class is about 60%.

Staff

In-person attendance on school property is required for classified employees, like bus drivers or cafeteria employees. Human Resources Director Stephen Foster said the system is attempting to find work for classified employees, like cleaning and maintaining school grounds for the time being.

“A bus driver can’t drive a bus from home,” Foster said. Recently expanded federal and state unemployment packages may help ease the strain on these employees once work runs out.

Teachers will continue to be required to submit daily remote statement of work reports, meant to account for tasks completed. Lemon said the system needed to treat employees like professionals and trust them to do their jobs. Chairwoman Ellen Milligan urged staff to be lenient when reviewing work forms; Oates said principals have been advised repeatedly to provide as much flexibility as possible.

Freyja Cahill, BCS finance director said the remote work forms are a way to account for work being done.

“We don’t want to micromanage. That is not the intent of this,” Cahill said.

Having lost her part-time job this week a result of government-mandated restrictions, Cooke said school system employees are in better shape compared to other sectors, given the looming economic uncertainty.

View the original resolution, with edits to note changes the board adopted Friday:

3.20.20 Emergency Called (amended) by Johanna Ferebee Still on Scribd


Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee Still at johanna@localvoicemedia.com

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