September 27th School Board Meeting (and Retreat) — My Thoughts

September 27th School Board Meeting (and Retreat) — My Thoughts

We held a regular board meeting on September 27th. You can view the meeting here (on the Richland One website) or here (on YouTube). As always, I encourage you to watch the entire meeting.

We also held a Board Retreat on September 24th. I will summarize that meeting as well.

Employee’s Handbook — How We Talk to Our Employees

The district provides employees with an Employee Handbook, which sets out expectations and provides information that all employees should have. One page of this document (see below) is a letter from the school board members.

This document was presented to me for my signature in August. I did not sign it and explained my concerns via email. First, I find the tone to be condescending. Rather than welcome our employees — especially new employees — on board, we provide a numbered list of expectations. The first one instructs folks to “report to work prepared, on time, and ready to fulfill all duties as assigned. . .” Seriously, that’s the first thing we as board members have to say to our new employees? We really need to remind our teachers to be on time and to be prepared? The list doesn’t get better from there.

On top of that, this numbered list of expectations is provided verbatim on page 15 of the handbook and again directly from the superintendent in a separate memorandum.

Why would we not simply welcome our teachers and staff and let them know we are here for them?

This may seem like a minor issue, but this speaks to a more significant problem — how we talk to and treat our school-level employees. The fact that no one has thought about how our teachers and staff might perceive this tone reveals a blind spot that, I believe, needs attention.

HR and Payroll

I continue to receive concerns about HR and Payroll issues from teachers and school leaders.

After our September 13th meeting, I was under the impression that we would tackle payroll issues at the board retreat. I was wrong. I’ll briefly summarize the retreat below, but I was disappointed that we prioritized an update of the solar project, for example, over what I perceive as a much more pressing issue for our employees.

I also emailed the chairwoman before this board meeting. I asked that we place on the agenda a vote on an operational audit of the Payroll and HR departments and a fiscal audit of the Payroll Department. My request was denied. We are scheduled to discuss payroll issues at a work session on October 11th before our regular board meeting that night. I again asked that we schedule a vote about the need for audits. We will see whether that happens.

Teachers and administrative staff are watching us twiddle our thumbs instead of acting decisively to address what are — and have been — significant problems. In fact, this recent story indicates that the internal auditor has had concerns for a number of years about how the Payroll Department has been staffed. We can’t brag about having an internal auditor if we’re going to ignore him when he raises issues like this.

Legal Services

The administration requested that the board approve a list of law firms that could handle legal matters on behalf of the district. Contrary to policy, the administration did not provide us with an assessment of the effectiveness of these law firms. I moved to table the vote until we had more information from the district. The board voted — 4-3 — to postpone the vote until the next board meeting.

Litigation Committee

The agenda listed an item regarding a Litigation Committee. The board members — or, at least, I — had not been provided any additional information about this item before the meeting. It wasn’t until we got to this item that we were provided with a memo. The memo indicates that in a pending lawsuit, one board member has been deemed to take a position that is adverse to the district. I do not think it is a bad idea to create a committee when it may be difficult to be at hearings or meetings that require some board participation. However, I could not get a straight answer about why the current circumstances necessitated it. For example, at one point, our general counsel suggested that we needed a committee to ensure that information not be shared with the board member with an adverse position. This doesn’t seem to be an appropriate use of a committee. If there is a specific reason that one board member needs to recuse themselves from receiving litigation-related information, that would be the more appropriate manner to address this concern.

Ultimately, our general counsel indicated that the committee would share information and would not act on its own. Given these assurances, I voted in favor of establishing the committee. However, I am not confident that was the right vote and would have liked more time to think about this issue.

Board Retreat

We held a board retreat on September 24th. Below, I summarize some of the topics covered.

School Safety

First, the administration provided a 90-minute executive session presentation about school safety. The entirety of this presentation and discussion regarded active shooter training and preparation. It was a pretty general presentation, but it was important and, I thought, useful. I also do not believe the information should have been presented in executive session. I cannot think of a single sentence that met any FOIA exception. When I raised this at last week’s board meeting, the superintendent replied that at times there was a discussion of “sources and methods.” I don’t think that is accurate. For example, the presenter, Captain Freeman from SLED, indicated several times that 90% of the safety problems associated with a school shooter could be addressed by ensuring that all doors are locked. Why would this general information that has been widely reported in the context of school shootings not be part of a public discussion? I could certainly see an argument that a discussion about a specific school’s equipment may need to be confidential so that we don’t provide a blueprint to a bad actor. But that’s not what happened here. We didn’t engage in any school-specific safety discussions.

School Nutrition

There was a very informative session about school nutrition. If anything, I wish this presentation had been recorded for viewing after the fact. I think people would have found this informative.

Some of the topics included:
* the amount we are reimbursed for meals
* the changing dietary guidelines that impact our menus
* improvements geared toward making food more appealing
* efforts to reduce food waste

Solar Panel Update, Numeracy, MTSS, and SEL

Between the school safety and nutrition updates, we were provided an update on the solar panel installations and presentations about mathematics instruction, multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS), and social-emotional learning (SEL). The MTSS and SEL presentations focused on the extra support schools provide students who need it.