Politics and theatre productions share two very important concerns when dealing with the public - timing and staging. The Carteret County Board of Education failed to consider both of these key elements with this week’s announced $15,000 pay raise for County Superintendent Rob Jackson. This decision and the means by which it was done now create a predicament for Dr. Jackson as he delivers a variety of challenging decisions to an already critical audience.
The state’s education system at both the state and local level has been the arena for politically charged issues. Tuesday’s cavalier and arguably precipitous decision by the school board only heightens an already volatile environment for school administrators and staff.
Discomfort with state’s public schools has been accelerating over the past year with impassioned debates over gender issues and the inclusion of the controversial Critical Race Theory in a hastily designed social studies curriculum approved by the State Board of Education.
These controversies only fed additional public dissatisfaction and growing distrust of the state’s public schools and educational services expressed by parents frustrated by the disruption of in-class participation due to the Covid-19 pandemic quarantines. Because students attended school from their homes in most cases parents were given an opportunity to watch their children’s academic activities and progress, and many are dissatisfied with both the process and the content of the curriculum.
Most recently Carteret County parents have been showing up at school board meetings to argue aggressively against the board’s decision mandating masks for all students and teachers inside the schools. Masks are not required outside of school buildings.
Recognizing the heightened and vitriolic public criticism of that decision and ongoing curriculum issues it was surprising that the school board was so tone deaf that it moved forward with a salary decision destined to create a firestorm of criticism.
Compounding the bad timing of this decision, the board also failed on creating a good sales message which is resulting in bad optics for the board and school administration.
Unlike the controversial mask mandate decision, which was fully vetted in a variety of public meetings by the board, Tuesday evening’s decision was included in its consent agenda, which meant that be it would be voted on without board comment or discussion.
A letter written by school board attorney Neil Whitford, included in the Tuesday agenda packet, was the only justification offered. That letter noted that the board, concerned that Dr. Jackson’s current salary was “relatively low,” made the decision during an annual evaluation on Aug. 3. According to Mr. Whitford’s letter, Dr. Jackson’s salary is not comparative to nearby school superintendents, $191,830 for Craven County’s superintendent and $181,348 for Onslow county’s superintendent.
In many regards this decision, both in the way it was announced and in timing, are unfair to Dr. Jackson. At the very least the board should have made a greater effort to justify the decision beyond just comparatives with surrounding counties. They could have, and should have, identified some of the benchmarks that he has reached and in the process done a better job on selling his accomplishments to the public. Instead they treated it in a perfunctory fashion.
School staff and teachers are working in challenging circumstances due to pandemic concerns requiring masks and additional cleaning responsibilities, all of which are compounded because of staff shortages. Already loaded down with extra pandemic related duties, school personnel are being asked to take on additional jobs such as bus driving and food service operations on top of their normal activities.
The school board’s perceived lack of concern for the teachers and staff, as noted in a large number of critical postings on social media, creates a stark contrast for the $15,000 pay raise so quickly decided in the school board meeting. This only enhances the growing distrust of the public school system by taxpayers and particularly the parents of students.
It is too late to undo the critical reviews of Tuesday night’s announcement but the board should and must work to reduce the negative publicity it is causing themselves and most specifically Dr. Jackson. Otherwise there will be no curtain call but rather the lowering of the curtain on both the board and the administration.