NCSS looks to alter disciplinary tribunal hearings

COVINGTON -- The Newton County School System is changing the way it handles disciplinary tribunal hearings to save its administrators time and maybe even some money.

The Newton County Board of Education unanimously approved at its monthly meeting last week changing to a dual hearing officer model, rather than a disciplinary tribunal that it utilizes now to handle student suspensions and expulsions.

"There is a healthy sense of urgency to improve student achievement in our schools and classrooms, especially given federal (Adequate Yearly Progress) expectations and projections for the current school year," said NCSS Superintendent Gary Mathews in a memo to the school board members as part of his recommendation.

Originally, at the school board's monthly work session earlier this month, Mathews recommended that the system switch to a single hearing officer model.

Mathews said this would assist in making student achievement the school system's top priority, with administrators spending more time at the schools, rather than having them come to assist in tribunal hearings.

"They're spending way too much time in hearings instead of at their schools working on discipline and curriculum," said school board Chair Cathy Dobbs. "Our money is better spent with them in their home schools dealing with students."

Mathews reported that 245 disciplinary tribunals were held in NCSS during the 2009-10 school year involving 33 school administrators, including 16 middle school and 17 high school administrators. At a minimum, they spent at least 195 hours in the hearings, based on a minimum one-hour hearing, but up to 292 hours, based on an average of one and a half hour hearings.

"The administration is confident that the system's current hearing officer has the experience and will continue to receive the appropriate training to further gain the confidence of the Board of Education and superintendent in order to discharge this important function of NCSS," Mathews said. "Given the hundreds of hours saved for school-based administrators, which can be devoted to focusing on instruction and school discipline back on their respective school sites, the pros in favor of the academic mission of the school system greatly outweigh the cons for moving to a single hearing officer approach."

He said this model also could save more than $57,000 each school year, as three administrators who serve on a tribunal panel earn about $51.88 each per hour, not including benefits that equal about 25 percent of the salary of a full-time employee. Combined with the salary of the hearing officer, NCSS spent more than $134,000 on the disciplinary tribunal process during the last school year, Mathews reported.

"Every dollar counts given the school system's budgetary challenges of late," Mathews said. "With this kind of savings, the school system could even hire a retired school administrator on a part-time basis to assist the system's current hearing officer, forming a two-person panel, thus saving dollars and, more importantly, freeing up school-based administrators to spend hundreds of more hours at their respective schools monitoring instruction and providing for improved school decorum or discipline on site."

At the school board's regular session meeting, after the board members had a chance to think about and discuss the recommendation, they said they felt more comfortable using a second pair of eyes, thus forming a dual hearing officer model using a retired educator. Mathews said he was in favor of that option, too, and would solicit the help at a cost that would not exceed $9,000 per school year.

"This is a big bang for our buck, allowing us to do what we should be doing at our schools," Mathews said.

The board agreed to revisit the model in a year to decide if it is working out for the school system and can then amend it again if they prefer to do so.

"I think it's a great experiment and idea," Dobbs said.