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Superintendent gets hiring authority during emergency

With the Suffolk School Board scheduled to meet virtually for at least the next two months, and with plans to discuss only issues related to the coronavirus pandemic at those meetings, it gave Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III authority Thursday to make hiring decisions for the division during that time.

During the May and June meetings, the board will eschew its own comment period and closed sessions because they will not relate directly to issues the division faces during the state of emergency, according to board attorney Wendell Waller.

The board typically holds closed sessions to discuss personnel matters, and then after the closed session, they vote on and typically approve a report approving any hires or changes in personnel status, as they are not permitted to formally vote on those matters during the closed session.

However, two board members who participated in Thursday’s meeting remotely, David Mitnick and Sherri Story, were not allowed to participate in the closed meeting. They did not vote whether or not to go into closed session, while the other five members voted to do so.

When the meeting came out of the closed session, Mitnick voted against certifying the closed meeting, while Story said she couldn’t vote to certify a meeting in which she didn’t participate. The rest of the board — along with Gordon and other staff members — met in person at the College and Career Academy at Pruden and voted to certify the closed meeting.

“Well, I can’t certify a meeting I wasn’t at,” Story said during that vote. “I don’t know what you did. It’s a non-vote. I can’t vote if I wasn’t at the meeting.”

Both Mitnick and Story voted against approving both the personnel report and the pupil personnel report, which were discussed in the closed meeting.

While the closed session was going on, Story took to Facebook Live to address the exclusion by the rest of the board. She said the rest of the board was apparently concerned about confidentiality.

However, the board seemed to address the issue of closed meetings when, acting on motions from Vice Chair Dr. Judith Brooks-Buck, it unanimously approved conducting completely electronic meetings for May and June, and they unanimously allowed Gordon to make hiring decisions for the school division without board approval. Gordon said he would report back to the board on major hiring decisions.

Near the end of the meeting, the board voted unanimously to hold its May 14 and June 11 meeting electronically. Story made the motion to accept, while Mitnick seconded it.

They then voted unanimously to grant Gordon expanded hiring authority while Gov. Ralph Northam’s state of emergency is in effect. The motion stated that Gordon must report back to the board “all hiring decisions.”

Brooks-Buck, in reading the motion, introduced it by saying that “the closed session portion of the School Board could not be transmitted to our board members who were at home (Mitnick and Story) for reasons of confidentiality. Those reasons were read aloud as we discussed the agenda for the closed session meeting.”

Closed sessions will not take place for the May and June meetings. Story asked whether Gordon would follow-up on the hires to the board by email.
“Our plan is to be able to send you electronic communication for major hires as they come forward,” Gordon said. “It will not be as detailed a report as the one you normally receive from our Dr. (Rodney) Brown during the closed session, but with some major hirings that we have coming up, and some transfers that we are planning, you will receive an email from me the day of, or the day before, just to keep the board in the loop.”

Waller said the personnel report would not be to address the effects of the emergency, so there will not be one at the May and June meetings.

“The reason you’re not having a closed session is because the meeting that you’re going to have in May is going to be a totally electronic meeting,” Waller said. “And if you’re having a totally electronic meeting, the only purpose for that meeting can be to address the effects of the emergency.”