There are serious issues of questionable secrecy and outrageous non-transparency happening at the J-D Board of Education — and district residents need to continue to stand up, question it, and hold the board accountable for ignoring the voices of their constituents. There is also something suspicious happening in the district — when three school board members, including the board president, resign in a one-month period, something is rotten that people no longer want to be a part of.
We demand that the board — and the administration, which is also accountable to the public — stop ignoring their residents, stop holding meetings unnecessarily in secret, stop making decisions behind closed doors and be honest about what is happening behind district walls.
This started in earnest in September, when more than 60 district residents attended a school board meeting during which they wanted to comment on and question the board about a potential culture of bullying of students by teachers in the high school music department. That concern coincided with the August death of a former student. At the Sept. 17 board meeting, parents and students in attendance were told they were not allowed to publicly discuss at that meeting the student death, the bullying accusations or the issue of students’ mental health and how to address it. Board President Mark Schulman said the discussion ban was to protect students from stress and to avoid “sensationalizing” a tragedy. He said emails to board members would be responded to.
For a publicly elected board to shut down public comment — when a huge crowd shows up at a public meeting to discuss issues of concern — is unconscionable and directly in violation of their duties as public representatives. To call this ban on comments on a subject you would simply prefer not to discuss as something done to avoid “sensationalizing” a topic is simply a cowardly avoidance of being held to account.
In October, board member Dr. Dana Corcoran resigned after serving only one year on the board.
The school board and district administration have not uttered a peep about all these public concerns in their district for two months. Then, at the Nov. 19 board meeting, another group of 60-plus parents and students showed up again to discuss their continued concerns. They were again told that the board — the publicly elected board — would not discuss it in public meeting and were told to send emails. The problem, parents and students said, is that they have been sending emails — and those emails have been ignored.
When one resident asked the board how community members can amplify their voices, acting board President Virginia Murphy said it was “not the opportunity for the board to engage in discussion or conversation, but emails are always welcome.” If the public comment period of a public meeting of publicly-elected individuals is not an “opportunity” to discuss issues of public concern, then we ask the board to explain to us all exactly when is the right time and situation?
Also at that meeting, it was announced that two more school board members had resigned, including the board president and second most senior member, but it was not announced why, or when they would be replaced, or by whom. In fact, Superintendent Alice Kendrick said the board would discuss possible replacements for those two vacancies in executive session — in other words, behind closed doors. Why? These are public positions of people who will represent the residents of the school district. What possible reason could there be to hold that discussion in executive session? What was being discussed that the board and the superintendent did not want the public to hear? Does it have anything to do with the fact that three board members have resigned in one months’ time and is there a specific reason for this seeming coincidence?
We consulted with an attorney at the state Committee on Open Government about this, and he said that while discussing potential board replacements in executive session was not a violation of open meetings law, it was also completely unnecessary. It is not a “personnel issue” that needs private discussion (“personnel issue” being one of the legal reasons for a board going into executive session), he said, and, in his opinion, too many boards hide behind the term “personnel” for items they simply prefer not to discuss in public.
Finally, it is also important to point out at this time that school boards, being elected officials representing their community, have oversight of the district superintendent. The superintendent answers to the school board — not the other way around. When we contacted acting board President Murphy for comment and clarification on certain issues last week, her response was that she could not comment and Kendrick was the board’s spokesperson. That strikes us a clear indication that the board has vacated its supervisory role.
There are currently two vacant board seats. Now is the time for the JD Board of Education to show they are truly representing their constituents and neighbors, that they believe in transparency and accountability, by appointing to the seats district parents who have been demanding answers and accountability from the board. They should discuss filling these two seats in open meeting — not executive session — and they should put out a call to the public to ask who, if anyone, would like to serve. This action would go a long way to alleviating the concerns of secrecy and transparency of many district residents.