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SoVaNow.com / April 30, 2014The Mecklenburg County School Board and Superintendent of Schools James Thornton have mostly been on their best behavior thus far in 2014 after doing everything in their power to enshrine the word “godawful” in the day-to-day lexicon last year. One could only wait with bated breath to see how long the atmosphere of peace, love and understanding would last. Last Tuesday night’s meeting of the School Board delivered our answer.
The trustees and the superintendent convened one of their patented, scratch-your-eyeballs-out, four hour-plus sessions to clear the decks on some leftover matters from 2013, the most important being the findings of an outside auditing firm, Creedle Jones & Alga of South Hill, on the spending and procurement practices of the Central Office. This is an issue that has been simmering since last summer, when the local auditors produced a report that rapped Thornton for sidestepping state budget rules that govern the use of school student activity funds. Accounting disputes may be dry stuff, but ‘tis all the better for kindling the fires.
The upshot of the Creedle Jones & Alga report is that Thornton has been circumventing procedures that he supposedly put in place to tighten school-level spending, in a way that enabled under-the-radar purchases — new desks and chairs for classrooms being the most notable example. In accounting-speak, the alleged irregularities were rendered as “several areas of weakness and exceptions to established accounting and internal control policies” — what ordinary people might call fudging the books.
Tuesday night, the trustees were supposed to take up the matter of hiring a new attorney — another potentially contentious debate — but they had to delay that one to allow time to hear out the audit and listen to the Jim Thornton So’s-Your-Mama Show. And what a show it was: dark mutterings about biased journalism (aimed at this newspaper, natch), biased auditors (David Alga, who presented his firm’s findings Tuesday, is married to a departed Central Office supervisor) and how the naysayers disregard all the positive things Thornton has done for the local school division. Not being in attendance myself, my understanding of the discussion comes second-hand. But it sounds like quite a performance.
Any fair evaluation of Thornton’s tenure as school superintendent must take into account his real accomplishments: successful advocacy of better pay for school employees (although most of the progress on this front was achieved relatively early in his term), his work to upgrade elementary facilities, even his unstinting efforts to highlight the individual accomplishments of students and staff within the system. (It never hurts to give recognition where recognition is due).
There are other areas where the jury remains out on Thornton’s agenda, and fairly so: we really don’t know if Project Based Instruction represents a quantum leap in learning that it’s made out to be, but the research points to PBL instruction as a more effective way to run a classroom, and the real question is not about the merit of curriculum reform but the quality of its implementation. Thornton is pushing ideas that are encouraging on paper but uncertain in practice. Ordinarily with this much on his plate, you’d want to give the county’s school chief the benefit of the doubt.
So what does it say when said school chief makes this proposition more difficult than it needs to be? Thornton’s occasional forays into the realm of paranoia are one thing — it doesn’t help that a minority bloc on the School Board is clearly set against him — but the auditor’s report is quite another. Strip away the jargon and the procedural hullaballou, and what you’re left with is a depiction of a school superintendent who rolls underlings, rules by decree and shuns outside accountability and scrutiny. I’m not sure Thornton realizes how damaging this kind of critique is to his ability to convince others to go along with his agenda. It’s as if he’s decided to not only eschew the powers of persuasion, but to curse them. Maybe brute force works in Game of Thrones, but it’s a dead-end strategy for a school superintendent who doesn’t even have the power of the purse.
About that: There hasn’t been a day in my three decades-plus with this newspaper that I’ve thought Mecklenburg County public schools were funded at an even remotely decent level — not a single, solitary, stinking day. Despite some movement to bring teacher salaries up to the level of companion school districts, and notwithstanding some nice upgrades to the elementary schools, the county division remains mired in a self-imposed state of poverty: hamstrung by low employee pay, torn by divided loyalties east and west, and featuring high school and middle school facilities that ought to be a source of embarrassment for every citizen of the county. So you probably know how I would answer the question, “Should Mecklenburg County raise taxes to improve its schools?” — except for one thing: logically the sentence must to be lengthened to include the words, “with the present leadership in charge.” Does our superintendent really expect a sympathetic ear during budget time when people don’t trust that their taxpayer dollars will be spent as intended?
This is all a very simple indictment — and far less serious, it should be noted, than alleging the money is flat going to waste, or worse — and Thornton is way too smart to fail to understand how such perceptions might arise. Whether he cares or not is another matter. One unfortunate consequence of Mecklenburg County’s historic refusal to adequately fund its schools is the perpetuation of a cat-and-mouse game among school superintendents and county supervisors — with the former forever seeking ways to wring spare cash from the latter, even if it means being less than clear about the budgetary choices. The lineup of school superintendents may change, but the incentives don’t.
It may be that Thornton has carefully weighed the value of curbing his ambitions as a means to build trust among the Mecklenburg County Board of Supervisors, and decided that this plus a buck-fifty will get him a cup of coffee the next time the supes call a meeting. And he wouldn’t be wrong about that. But Thornton does seem to be forgetting why he enjoyed some initial successes upon bursting onto the scene a few short years ago: he profited from the sense that change had to occur with the schools, a feeling that was palpable among even the most tight-fisted of county citizens. (Well, maybe not Bill Blalock, but we digress.) There was a considerable constituency for doing more to raise up the system, but these same sympathetic citizens will not long support a superintendent who tosses out perfectly adequate school desks and chairs, buys new furnishings with pots of money that are supposed to go to the FFA, the band program and the athletic department, and then runs over anyone who gets in the way. Enough pointless fights, and people start to get the point.
Will Jim Thornton?