Wilma L. Ernul

Published 5:13 pm Monday, August 6, 2007

By Staff
not synonymous
The Beaufort County Board of Education must be deliberate in putting together a policy on who views employees’ personnel files. On its face, who has access to such records and where and when they can see them may seem like an open and shut case. It isn’t, and the county board can’t afford to have the same gray areas in its policy that the state law has on this matter.
Well, that’s ridiculous. The state has very clear and across-the-board objectives for all its students, regardless of the schools they attend. It stands to reason then, that on a matter as important as personnel files, the state would have clear, across-the-board instructions that would apply to every public school system. Alas, that is not the case.
According to state statutes, “all information contained in a personnel file … except as otherwise provided … shall not be open for examination except to … the superintendent and other supervisory personnel, members of the local board of education and the board’s attorney.”
Maybe that seems straightforward enough. And maybe it is, for some school leaders. But the problem is this: The statute leaves wide open the terms under which “members of the local board of education” may view the files of school workers.
Two attorneys have advised Moss that “they could argue either way” about what kinds of procedures are acceptable. But in the absence of clear guidelines, the Beaufort County Board of Education must endeavor to be as fair as possible to its teachers or risk losing them to other school systems.
Does that mean that teachers get carte blanche to do whatever they please? Absolutely not. But by the same token, school board members should not be allowed to use their elected offices to do whatever they please.
School board member Teressa Banks is right to say that the board of education is “charged with oversight.” But that’s not to say that any individual member of the board should have the same oversight that the board, acting as a body, would have.
School board member William Warren said last week that he thinks the board review employees’ records only if that decision is reached by consensus.
If any school board member has such grave concerns about an employee that he or she feels the need to review that worker’s records, then that leader should notify fellow leaders of those concerns — and should do so immediately. To do anything less would be irresponsible.
If some reason, be it urgency or discomfort, prevents a school board member from notifying the rest of the board about reviewing a personnel file, there should be another party, perhaps the board’s attorney, who is notified. Such measures would prevent what school board member John White called “random investigation” and what school board Chairman Robert Belcher likened to “a fishing expedition.”
Yes, the murky state law allows individual members of the board of education to view employees’ files. But leaders shouldn’t always do things just because they can. The long-term consequences of that kind of mentality could be dire.