Feb. 10—Who gets the final say on which community members can speak to local school classes?
Who ultimately determines what apps are added to the laptops and tablets that have taken the place of textbooks for nearly all current students?
Who picks which books to add to the shelves of school district libraries?
As school boards across the country have become the focus of more politicized scrutiny in the wake of the pandemic, these and similar questions have been asked more frequently.
When boards take on these responsibilities, are they fulfilling their oversight duties? Or are they micromanaging the professionals hired to perform such tasks?
The question arose this week as PENNCREST School District discussed three proposed school visits and two purchases. The visits — which come with no cost to the district — involve a Crawford County career education expert who has worked with local districts for over a decade, a representative of Laurel Technical Institute, and a PennWest Edinboro admissions counselor.
The proposed purchases include a computer programming app for $9.99 and a workbook for $19.95 on overcoming self-harm for use that would be used, with parents' consent, by the district's mental health staff.
Votes on such resource requests have been coming before the board on a near-monthly basis since mid-2021.
While the board has been hyper-focused on such details, it has ignored its policies, one member argued at the monthly work session Monday.
"The policy basically says the superintendent ... is delegated to make these decisions," Theresa Lugo said. "I trust you, we hired you, we hired our people to be responsible. If the policy says the superintendent is delegated to do it, why am I getting into the nuts and bolts of your job?"
Lugo pointed to the district's policy on resource materials, which covers everything from people and organizations visiting district schools to novels and textbooks. According to the policy, "The superintendent, after consultation with the administration and teaching staff, shall be responsible for the selection, recommendation and maintenance of all resource materials."
Changes contrary to the superintendent's recommendation require a two-thirds majority of the board's approval.
Acting Superintendent Ken Newman traced the current practice of requiring board votes on all proposed resource materials to former Superintendent Tim Glasspool.
"That was his way of giving the board the opportunity to overturn decisions," Newman said.
The votes appear to have become regular parts of the board's monthly meetings in August 2021. At the time, the increasingly polarized board was amid a prolonged debate on a proposed ban on teaching critical race theory (CRT). One version of the CRT policy was defeated in November 2021; a revised version was approved in March 2022.
But two years later, the result of monthly consideration of minor purchases and uncontroversial visits — for Lugo, at least — has been harrying.
"It's like I'm a hamster, running," she said at one point in the discussion.
Board Vice President David Valesky, who is frequently on the side opposite Lugo when issues divide the board, agreed that the current practice did not square with existing policy but called for a change to the policy rather than the board's current practice.
"I like the way we're doing it," he said.
In an interview after the meeting, Valesky recalled voting against certain resource proposals and described the selection of resources as "one of our most important jobs." Far from being an instance of micromanagement or a sign of distrust toward the administration, oversight of resource materials is a basic board responsibility, he said.
"I just feel like it's our job," Valesky said. "As a manager of a store, it's my job to make sure that everything's going well, that everyone's doing their job. I think it's a good precautionary step for us to take."
The board meets next at 7 p.m. Monday in the auditorium of Cambridge Springs Junior-Senior High. According to an agenda for the meeting available via the district website, the board will vote then on the various resource material requests.
Mike Crowley can be reached at (814) 724-6370 or by email at email@example.com.