The Indian River School District (IRSD) School Board returned Clarksville resident Charles Bireley (District 4) to the top spot at a July 1 reorganization meeting.
Bireley was first elected to the School Board in 1974 and served for 15 years before taking a break from 1989 to 1992. He ran again in 1992, was reelected and has remained active ever since.
He has served as board president for six of those 27-plus years, and as vice president for another eight. Bireley has done his share on committees over that time as well, with Building & Grounds, Negotiations and Finance.
He last served a term at president just two years ago.
Bireley said the position mainly involved keeping things rolling at the meetings — ideally, some of the finer points could hashed out in committee before issues came to the full board, he explained.
However, he said it was also important to keep things democratic.
“We might have 10 different opinions, and that can take some time, but I believe anybody can have their say,” Bireley pointed out.
He said he hadn’t had too many dull moments on the board yet and didn’t anticipate that would change much over the course of his present term.
“We have major renovation projects at Lord Baltimore (Elementary) and Georgetown Middle, and we need to finish them,” he said. “We need to get all that done within a year, and then we’ll start on East Millsboro (Elementary). So we’ve got three projects going at one time.”
However, Bireley reported good news from the General Assembly, in the form of additional market pressure funds. The Lord Baltimore project will be eligible for some of those, he said. (The district is adding four new classrooms and a cafeteria at Lord Baltimore).
Bireley said IRSD would garner nearly a quarter-million dollars from that $20 million appropriations bill.
The latest controversy to surround the School Board has involved pay reductions for numerous “school climate” positions (behavior modification, intervention specialists, in-school suspension supervisors).
Those yearly contracts were recently terminated, and budget constraints have forced the district to re-advertise for the same positions offering lower pay. Students held peaceful rallies in support of those workers, and concerned parents have pushed the school board to find other places to make cuts instead.
Bireley said the budget gap was linked to the loss of state and federal grant monies the district had been getting over the past five years ($100,000 per year).
With that funding source dried up, the district has retained only “school resource officers” (SROs) — police officers with training in juvenile law, dealing with disruptive students, etc. — in permanent positions and plans to fill the other positions as available grant monies allow.
District Business and Finance Director Patrick Miller said there was $1.5 million in the recently passed state budget to help IRSD finish the heating and air conditioning at the new Sussex Central Senior High School.
The original mechanical contractors on the Sussex Central project defaulted on their performance bond. (The district is trying to recoup the financial loss through litigation). That work disturbance tacked an additional $2 million onto the final bill.
That, along with the reductions in federal and state funding, led the board to enact the fiscal-austerity measures presently affecting the school climate workers.
However, even with some help on the way from the state, Miller said the board’s first priority would necessarily remain the completion of the construction projects.
Former Board President Harvey L. Walls (District 1) called the reorganization a “vote of confidence in Mr. Bireley.”
“The residents of this district should be very proud of the schools we’ve built,” Walls said. “Yes, we’ve had some problems, but there are going to be problems on any construction projects — anybody who’s had work done on their own house should know that from experience.”
Walls said his own just-ended term as board president had been a little rough, with the controversy surrounding allegations of religious intolerance in IRSD. (The legal suit filed in the case is still pending.) However, Walls said he’d seen controversy before, back in the early 1990s.
At that time, the board had alleged incompetence in firing a district math teacher, when high failure rates seemed to indicate ineffective material delivery. But supporters of that teacher rallied, suggesting the teacher had rather refused to wave students through with passing grades if they hadn’t earned them.
Walls said the board had certainly been through its ups and downs — “but we’ve still made progress,” he emphasized. “We’ve accomplished a lot, and we’re still moving forward.