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Board discusses disciplinary actions

The School Board on Thursday discussed more disciplinary actions that it could take against its own members for violations of norms and protocols it has established — while one member questioned why there are violations at all.

The discussion happened during the work session following the publication of an article in Thursday’s Suffolk News-Herald describing two violations that have already been issued against board member Sherri Story, who represents the Chuckatuck Borough.

Story was absent from the March meeting at which the norms and protocols were approved by the rest of the board and takes issue with several of them. For instance, she has continued to use a Facebook page to discuss the issues she sees in Suffolk Public Schools, in violation of one of the protocols. She also asked staff questions about an audit during a public meeting rather than addressing her questions to the superintendent ahead of time, in violation of another protocol.

In late February, Story had a meeting with board Chair Phyllis Byrum, which Story says she did not realize at the time was the notification of her first violation. At the May meeting, she was handed a letter signed by the other members of the board notifying her of behavior to which they took exception — her second violation.

The third violation would bring discussion in an open meeting. The norms and protocols document lists disciplinary actions for only three violations, so members discussed adding a fourth on Thursday.

“We didn’t think we’d ever need a (No.) 4,” Vice Chair Dr. Judith Brooks-Buck said on Thursday.

Brooks-Buck said the fourth disciplinary action of removing the offending member from committees had been discussed during the board’s visit with the Virginia School Boards Association in February, but it was not implemented at the time.

Board member Tyron Riddick suggested Thursday stripping the offending member of their right to make motions during meetings as the fourth disciplinary action.

“You’re not infringing on anyone’s legal right,” Riddick suggested, because the member would still be able to vote.

Story said she would challenge that. Later in the work session, she asked why there are violations at all.

“I recommend we don’t have any violations against one another,” she said. “How is that going to help us all work together? We should not be critiquing one another’s behavior. That’s not what we got voted to do.”

The board eventually voted 5-2, with Story and David Mitnick in opposition, to approve removal from committees as disciplinary action for a fourth violation.

Story is currently on the Policy Review Committee.

School Board Attorney Wendell Waller said he will research to “determine whether or not it is legally defensible.”

Other board members said the action is currently used by other school boards in Virginia. Perusal of statewide media shows it has been put to use in recent years in Richmond and Chesterfield.

During the regular meeting, division parent Patricia Holloman said the violations provide an opportunity to “gang up” on each other.

“It appears to an outsider that there’s an attempt to subdue and punish simply because you may not like what someone else has to say,” she said.

Elaborating on her comments in a phone call Friday afternoon, Holloman said there are many larger concerns in the school system. She does not live in the Chuckatuck Borough but said she has a problem with any of the members being silenced.

“I would have a very serious problem with the School Board attempting to silence or punish any School Board member, especially mine if it came to that, because I’m the one that voted,” she said. “That’s taking away their ability to do what we entrusted them to do.”

The board also went into closed session to discuss communications from Kevin Martingayle, the attorney Story has hired to represent her. Story said Friday that the rest of the board asked her to leave when the letters from Martingayle were discussed.

A letter from Waller to Martingayle on June 10 asserted that Waller is permitted to represent individual members of the School Board, referring to a rule stating a lawyer representing an organization may also represent any of its directors, officers or employees — but must be careful if there are adverse interests.

“The interests of the organization (i.e. School Board) and constituent (i.e., individual members of the School Board) are not adverse,” he wrote. “The only school board member whose interest is adverse to that of the organization is that of your client, Board Member Sherri D. Story.”

He also wrote he had consulted with the Virginia State Bar Legal Ethics Counsel, and they agreed with him.