Firestorm lit at School Board meeting

By Ruthann Carr, Correspondent

What appeared to be the close of a normal School Board meeting Wednesday (Aug. 8) turned into anything but.

Shirley Stewart (Rivanna) took issue with how Chair Perrie Johnson (Fork Union) greeted school staff at a breakfast Aug. 2, so she proposed the following motion:

“I would like to make the following motion that we inform staff that the message from the chair on opening day was not spoken on behalf of the Board. Therefore, the Board directs the superintendent to draft a statement that represents the mission, beliefs and strategic priorities that have previously been approved by the Board to be shared with staff.”

And that lit a firestorm.

This is what Johnson said to the staff on Aug. 2: “I’ll take just a minute to say one quick thing, and of course, it’s ‘thank you.’ Thank you for your work with our kids – whatever that work is – and thank you for choosing Fluvanna. I worked with Fluvanna for 25 years as a teacher and I quit. Then I got on the School Board to try and change some of the things that made me want to quit. Which brings me to – you are my heroes. You’re here now. Thank you and have a great year.”

After Stewart read her motion Johnson said, “Bringing this up before the Board you’re embarrassing me very much. I was welcoming the staff at a staff event. I thanked them for working for Fluvanna. That was my motivation.”

Brenda Pace (Palmyra), who was not at the Aug. 2 event, said, “From what I heard it was a negative message. I’m expecting good things for the staff and school.”

Andrew Pullen (Columbia) who also was not at staff opening day, said when he heard about what Johnson said, he called a few teachers to get their reaction.

“Until I brought it up nobody made a big deal of it,” Pullen said. “I didn’t take it negatively. I’m here making changes and we’re moving in the right direction.”

Then Pace spoke for a few minutes about how she’d been on the Board for nearly eight years and she didn’t think this Board worked together. Pace said she took offense to Johnson having said she was elected to make changes.

“We were all elected,” Pace said.

“I don’t feel like I’m on a Board. I don’t feel we can move forward in a positive manner. …I’ve been sitting on the back burner for a while and I don’t feel as if I’m working on a Board, if you want to put it out there, I’ll put it out there.”

When Johnson called for a vote on the motion, Stewart and Pace voted for; Johnson and Pullen voted against. Rittenhouse was not at the meeting. Because the vote ended in a tie, the motion will be brought up again at the Sept. 12 meeting.

After the vote during the last public comment period, Carolyn Ley stormed to the podium.

“I’m stunned. What in the world did I just witness? Trying to muzzle an elected official? Trying to limit speech? If you go to court you’ll lose I’m sure,” Ley’s voice was cracking, filled with emotion.

“This is ridiculous. What I see here is pettiness. I’m sorry we elected you. …Disagree? Great. Don’t muzzle.”

Ley went back to where she sat in the back of the room with her phone on a tripod. She said she was trying to stream the meeting live on Facebook because she wanted it to be accessible to people who couldn’t come in person.

“It didn’t work very well,” she said.

Earlier in the year the Board asked Superintendent Chuck Winkler to look into recording the meetings so people can access them online like the county does the Board of Supervisors meetings.

Winkler provided several options and the Board chose the one where the meetings were recorded but not made accessible on the web. Winkler said the school attorney advised against putting the recordings on the web because it made the school vulnerable to lawsuits because of ADA compliance issues. The July 31 seminar was recorded as was the Wednesday (Aug. 8) meeting. As it stands now, if someone wants access to the recording they must make a Freedom of Information Act request. Winkler estimated it would cost about $75 to make a CD to honor the request.

Also during the meeting, the Board discussed the 2017-18 $40,000 cafeteria debt. Winkler said after the Fluvanna Review article on it came out, he started receiving checks to pay off the debt. He didn’t say if the checks were from donations or from those who owed money, but the amount is now down to $33,000.

A new law went into effect July 31 preventing schools from making a student who doesn’t have lunch money do chores, giving the student a sandwich in lieu of the meal, or singling out the student in any way.

Winkler assured the Board Fluvanna doesn’t do any of those things.

The Board suggested they set an amount a person must owe before it goes to a lawyer for collection. Winkler said he’d do more research and bring it back to the Board for a vote.

Another vote that ended in a tie and will be brought up at the next meeting was whether to change the number of years a teacher would work before getting tenure. Right now in Fluvanna it’s five years. For a long time it had been three years. The Board discussed the pros and cons of each.
Johnson said she would prefer it be three.

“It’s a disservice to students to let a teacher go another two years after we saw they weren’t doing well,” she said. “If we cap it at three we just saved some students a lot of trouble.”

Stewart said she appreciated both sides. “At the beginning of their career they have a lot to learn and it can take five years,” she said.

Winkler said a lot more documentation must be done to dismiss a tenured teacher. He advocated five years before a teacher is given a continuing contract.

Stewart and Pace voted to keep it five years; Johnson and Pullen voted to make it three.

Where does the Board go from here?
After the Aug. 8 meeting, the Fluvanna Review asked Perrie Johnson and Shirley Stewart, “Where does the Board go from here? What would you like to see happen?”

Stewart: “With two new members this year, we are a relatively new Board. I realize that there may be times when we need to step back to examine how we work together so that we can perform at our highest level. Specifically, as a part of this process, I would like for the Board to discuss each of our roles and responsibilities so that there is a clear understanding.”

Johnson (who stressed her comment is not to be construed as coming from the Board): “I have a very hard time accepting that my remarks thanking teachers and staff are at the root of what we need to address as a Board at this point. I’d like to see us identify any deeper conflicts and work together to overcome them.”

The Review also asked, “What did you expect on the Board and what do you feel is your role?”

Stewart: “My experiences in other school districts, as a parent, teacher and administrator, shape my perspective. I understand that I am one voice of many and that the richness of our discussions is based on our varied perspectives. It is our job to promote the mission, vision and strategic priorities that have been established for the benefit of our students, staff and community. It is my hope that by serving on the Board, I can contribute to enriching the learning opportunities available to Fluvanna’s children.”

Johnson: “When I was elected to the Board, I expected to focus on the needs of students and how we can improve public education in Fluvanna. I feel my individual role, generally, is to ensure our limited resources are used efficiently to provide the very highest quality education for Fluvanna’s students. My role, more specifically, is to bring a teacher’s perspective to that process. As for my role as chair, I organize the business side of the Board and preside over meetings. I try to encourage a healthy balance of individual points of view and Board consensus.”

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