The Wilson County School Board voted not to push any hot buttons Monday night, opting not to revise the school system's dress code, at least not yet.
"You don't know how hot this seat is until you've dealt with dress codes," Board Chair Larry Tomlinson warned his fellow board members. "It's a hot-button issue, and I mean hot."
The board's vote doesn't mean the school system has no dress code, a fact that Zone 6 Board Member Bill Robinson wanted made clear.
It just means that the board didn't approve proposed changes in the code, which remains in effect "as is." But the board and Director of Schools Donna Wright both indicated that the code will be reworded more carefully and brought back to the next regular meeting on Feb. 2.
What do two words mean?
The biggest question Monday night was the meaning of two words - "decency and modesty." The new code would have given school administrators "the right to determine whether the student's attire is within the limits of decency and modesty."
Those limits could be hard to uniformly define, Robinson argued. "We have 17 principals, who will all be given the same instructions," he said. "But they are all different people."
The board members, with Zone 2 Board Member Linda Armistead absent due to her mother's death, each asked that the policy define exactly what is acceptable and what is not, and each expressed concerns that the policy might get "watered down." Dr. Wright said she also had talked earlier with Armistead, and she too was worried about the interpretation of "decency and modesty."
The board wanted specific rules so each principal's understanding of what constitutes "decent and modest" would be the same.
"If we're going to have a dress code, we need a dress code," said Tomlinson, who represents Zone 3 on the board - adding that a too-vague dress code would be difficult to enforce fairly, and that he would hate to make educators to turn into "clothing police" every morning.
Board Attorney Mike Jennings agreed: "The broader it is, the harder it is to defend."
The dress code also must be able to withstand legal challenges such as the one that hit it in the first few years of the 2000s over students being permitted to wear team spirit shirts like "Go Blue Devils!" but no other writing on their shirts, Jennings recalled.
Finally, the board voted 3-1 against revising the dress code, with Robinson voting in favor of the revisions.
Actually, the "dress code" is a fairly short "policy statement," and the most specific rules implementing the policy can be found in the student conduct code. That's why, a few minutes later in the meeting, the board voted unanimously to defer action as well on the first reading of revisions to the student conduct code.
The board decided, at the suggestion of Zone 1 Board Member Don Weathers, to wait to decide about the changes in the conduct code for the 2015-16 school year until the policy statement that the board voted down 3-1 can be revised.
Tardies, early pick-ups targeted
The changes in the conduct code will also address the schools' policy against bullying and cyber bullying, both "zero tolerance" offenses, as well as issues with tardiness and the early pick-up of children.
Dr. Wright said some parents seem not to realize the seriousness of dropping their child off 15 to 30 minutes late each day, or picking the child up consistently before school is out in the afternoon. "They lose needed instruction time," she said.
One of the changes proposed in the attendance policy will be calling parents of children with five or more absences and arranging for them to attend a conference with teachers and administrators to decide how to solve the problem.
The board did approve changes in the policy dealing with lost or destroyed books and equipment. The new rules require students to pay a fine equal to the cost of replacing the book if it's new, or a percentage of the cost if the book is used.
Include laptops too?
The laptop computers that students have been issued and are being allowed to take home should be included in the policy, Zone 5 Board Member Wayne McNeese commented. The computers are insured against damage for four years, but McNeese said that doesn't guarantee some won't get lost or stolen.
Dr. Wright agreed that McNeese had brought up a good point that needs to be addressed, but she also said students in districts where take-home laptops have been tried tend to take better care of them than the textbooks they are issued. "They tend to have a different attitude toward them," she said.
On Jan. 31, the board will be learning about how another school system benefited from providing laptop computers for its students. Dr. Wright told the board that Dr. Scott Smith from Morrisville, North Carolina, will be in the county to lead a workshop/retreat about his schools' experience with computers.
The afternoon will be used to inform the board and others about current and potential growth in the county and how it will affect the need to build more schools.
County 'flags' system budget
Mickey Hall, deputy director of schools and director of finance, also told the School Board that the county had "flagged the system budget" because they want "all funds to maintain a one-month surplus fund balance."
But he said that budgets based on grants can't do that, because the schools have to sign an agreement to use the grant within three to five days after it is received. Hall explained that he had done a cash-flow analysis, which shows the schools have no problem paying their expenses from month to month and he thought the county would approve that.
The issue connects to the letter the county received last fall saying their fund balances had to be over a certain amount to maintain their borrowing ability under state regulations.
"We're regulated by the Education Department, and usually the Comptroller's Office just checks with them to make sure we're in compliance with them," Hall commented, "but this year was different."
Hall told the board that the new requirements were put in place because some counties were carrying such low fund balances that they had to borrow money for operating expenses.
"So we're being penalized for what other counties are doing?" Tomlinson asked. Hall nodded and said, "We're just one of many counties to get this letter."
Writer Connie Esh may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.