Panel postpones vote on state Board of Ed’s future

DOVER — The debate over changes to the Delaware Board of Education continues.

The Joint Legislative Oversight and Sunset Committee, which has been reviewing the board for a year, held another meeting Tuesday.

After more than an hour of discussion, the panel concluded it was not ready to vote on a draft bill spelling out alterations to how the board operates.

Tensions rose at points during the meeting, with several lawmakers objecting to opposition by the board’s president and vice president over two proposed changes.

While members of the board had previously agreed to support legislation instructing the group to rotate meetings among counties and start the monthly gatherings four hours later, the panel has seen substantial turnover over the past year and new members are not as keen on the changes.

Members of the board and the committee butted heads on several occasions, sparking Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, R-Georgetown, to at one point accuse the board president of being “disrespectful” for asking why lawmakers wanted the board to meet around the state when the General Assembly always convenes in Dover.

“If that’s such a good idea, maybe the Legislature should consider flipping your meetings, four in each county,” President Dennis Loftus said.

He proposed streaming every meeting online, noting moving meetings around would require additional drive time for some members and increase costs.

But legislators were not receptive to the notion that forcing the board to travel more is an unnecessary burden.

“We’re not Montana where it is an extreme inconvenience for you to go from one end of the state from another,” Sen. Pettyjohn said.

Noting legislators regularly meet with constituents and attend hearings, forums and other meetings throughout the state, he said afterward several other lawmakers on the committee were surprised by Dr. Loftus’ statements.

Sen. Pettyjohn also objected to language detailing the duties of the board’s executive director, saying the description is better suited for a title of policy director.

“We depend on her to find out the latest and the best and connect us with what we need to know about,” replied Vice President Nina Lou Bunting.

Executive Director Donna Johnson left her position Friday.

Lawmakers were cold to the idea of making major changes to the draft bill, with some feeling the board was reneging on a proposal it had previously agreed to.

The committee originally voted on recommendations in March 2017, but because of issues passing a balanced budget, debate was set aside until this year. Four of the seven members were appointed to the board over the past year, leading to confusion over the board’s stance on the proposal.

In addition to rotating meeting locations and pushing back the start time, the draft bill would also add two non-voting members to the Board of Education, clarify what happens if a member resigns and spell out requirements for public comment.

Sen. Pettyjohn said afterward he expects the Department of Education will work with the board to iron out issues and allow the Sunset Committee to hopefully approve recommendations soon.

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