BROOKSVILLE — There comes a time, at the end of a long career, when public servants like to have their final say.
George Washington gave his big speech in 1796, warning of the dangers of foreign alliances and political parties. Dwight D. Eisenhower had his moment in 1961, adding rampant military spending to the watch list.
And so it shouldn't have come as a complete surprise when 65-year-old Jim Malcolm reached for the microphone last week at his final workshop, after 16 years on the Hernando County School Board.
His warning? Hold on to your lawful powers, he told the board, and don't let overreaching superintendents take them away from you.
"There are some things going on out there in the district that I'd be willing to wager you don't have a clue are going on," Malcolm told them.
He said he felt compelled to make the comments after discovering that superintendent Wayne Alexander hired some teachers this fall for a slate of new programs at schools on the county's east side.
"We did not give official approval of these programs," Malcolm said in an interview. "He said, 'Oh, yes you did; it's in the budget.' "
The programs — journalism at Moton Elementary, Parrott Middle and Hernando High, world languages at Brooksville Elementary and technology education at Eastside Elementary — got some encouragement from board members at a May workshop. But there were also worries about their eventual $2-million cost over five years.
Alexander said he heard the board's support and took that as approval to make a partial start, if he could find the money.
"And we moved forward, (adding) a position at each school to jump-start that process," he said. "I interpreted it as go after it, go get it."
But Malcolm said that assumption was unwarranted, particularly in tough budget times, with the board scraping together money to boost teacher salaries.
"When those expenditures are made, money is removed from the table," he told the board. "I can't say it any more forcefully. You can abrogate your responsibility and give it over to someone else and let it go. But you ultimately have the power of the purse strings."
Malcolm said the board should insist on its statutory power over budgets and curriculum, and make sure the superintendent highlights any future budget changes in executive summaries. And he urged the board to readopt a procedure it developed in 1998 to review new programs, in order to track its investments of public dollars.
One by one, each of his colleagues agreed.
"Every time we buy into something, we've got to make sure what we buy into is in the best interest of our students and our teachers," member Pat Fagan said.
Chairwoman Sandra Nicholson said the policy review system never should have been shelved.
"We never unadopted it," she added. "As far as I'm concerned, it's still in effect."
Later, Alexander said he had no objection to a streamlined version of the review system, as long as it didn't cost too much to carry out. And he thanked Malcolm for his occasionally abrasive — but always heartfelt — contributions to the county schools.
But on this day, in his final hours on the board, Malcolm had the floor. And he had no intention of going quietly.
"All due respect to the superintendent," he said, "but the buck stops here."
Tom Marshall can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431.