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School Board member faces censure

The Suffolk School Board is expected to take up a censure resolution against member Sherri Story during its meeting Thursday at City Hall for what it cites as her “willfully and deliberately” violating board norms and protocols on multiple occasions, as well as violating closed meeting confidentiality.

Much of the alleged violations stem from Facebook posts Story has made over the past nine months.

Though there is no formal punishment that comes with a favorable vote of a censure resolution, it stands as a public rebuke of the behavior the resolution alleges.

Story, who represents the Chuckatuck Borough, has been previously warned and counseled about abiding by board policies, and received a written notice Sept. 12 for committing six different violations of board norms and protocols.

“Story continues to willfully and deliberately violate norms and protocols adopted by the School Board since being issued a written warning on September 12, 2019,” according to the proposed resolution.

Story has previously said she was unaware at the time that a meeting she had with School Board chairwoman Phyllis Byrum in late February 2019 constituted notice of her first violation, and she received her second reprimand through a written letter three months later.

Story declined comment Tuesday, saying she would have more to say during and after Thursday’s meeting.

During the meeting, she will be given up to seven minutes “to voice any opposition you may have to the public censure,” according to a cover letter that board chairwoman Phyllis Byrum sent to Story with the resolution. Story posted a copy of the letter and resolution on her Facebook page. Each board member will also be allowed up to seven minutes to comment on the public censure, after which Story will be allowed three minutes for rebuttal.

At that point, board members will be able to make a motion and a second, and then the board will vote on the resolution during the open meeting.

Byrum did not return email or phone messages seeking comment.

Among the latest of Story’s alleged violations of board policy:

  • Violating the confidentiality of closed meeting discussions by stating on her Facebook page on Oct. 23 that “SPS is currently writing guidelines to determine transgender status,” when the board had only discussed this in a closed meeting Oct. 10. Story seemed to be responding to this on her Facebook page by posting guidance from the state Department of Education, which states that “there is no legal prohibition against board members revealing discussions held in closed sessions; nor may the board itself prohibit such.”
  • Alleging that “I’m pretty sure there was an illegal closed meeting occurring — can’t prove but I’m pretty sure,” on Jan. 7. The resolution states that Story had no evidence of an illegal closed meeting, and that posting information on her Facebook page “that is not verified and patently false” about School Board operations is a violation of board policy.
  • Interfering with the day-to-day operations of Suffolk Public Schools by calling for school staff members to write up a report about the condition of school bathrooms and send her instant messages about it. The resolution states that requesting to be contacted about the issue “is an intrusion on the day-to-day operations of schools” in violation of board policy.
  • Granting interviews to the Suffolk News-Herald regarding a personnel issue on March 6 and March 9 while not notifying board chairwoman Phyllis Byrum or Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III about either the calls or interview, in violation of board policy. Information from those interviews has not been published, and at the time, Story said she was speaking for herself, and not on behalf of the board.
  • Posting information on her Facebook page on March 11 that polling board members is illegal, and not verifying that before posting it.
  • Posting information on her Facebook page on March 19 about School Board operations that had not been verified and were “patently false.”
  • Communicating with a building administrator without first discussing it with Gordon.
  • Posting on April 21 that “SPS’s regularly scheduled closed meetings are a highly unusual practice,” which the resolution states “is patently false and was never verified for accuracy.”
  • Emailing the division’s director of technology, John Littlefield, for assistance with Zoom while recording a conversation with another person without letting the superintendent know prior to reaching out to Littlefield.
  • Intruding on the day-to-day operations of the division by contacting a neighboring school division about the possibility of furloughing employees after being told May 16 that the superintendent would not do this because he had already promised he would not lay off or furlough anyone at the beginning of school closures.
  • Posting on her Facebook page “patently false and not verified” information that three days’ notice was required to hold a called Policy Review Committee meeting for May 7 when only “reasonable notice under the circumstances” is required, according to the resolution, citing Virginia code. She noted that just 24 hours’ notice was given.
  • Posting on her Facebook page on May 8 “patently false, unverified and contrary to her earlier position in this regard,” information that the chair should run the Policy Review Committee, and not the school division attorney.
  • Asserting, repeatedly, that the board chairwoman polling board members by group email was a FOIA violation after being advised that it was not.
  • Emailing the executive director of finance for budget information without first going through the superintendent.
  • Posting “patently false and not verified” information about the superintendent’s salary.

On her Facebook page, Story responded to the censure resolution by attaching it to her page, saying she is “for honest, open and transparent governance” and would defend anyone’s First Amendment right of free speech, “even if that makes me the target of an article that disparages the idea of being ‘maverick’ on the School Board.”

She also said that she believes, along with the Supreme Court of the United States, that social media is the current public square for debate, discussion and talking about one’s personal life while making people aware of their governments’ activities.

Another board member, David Mitnick, said in reply to her that he was “sorry this is happening to you.”

Board member Tyron Riddick, wearing a blue Suffolk School Board shirt, said during a protest at City Hall Friday that “we need your help.”

“Right here in our own beloved city of Suffolk, African Americans within Suffolk Public Schools that are in positions of leadership are under attack,” Riddick said. “Our superintendent, our school attorney, our director of human resources, let alone our essential departments in our school system, that is composed (by a) majority of African-Americans and other minorities, they are directly under attack. When you have board members suggest that we furlough custodians, bus drivers and cafeteria workers in the middle of a pandemic — that means they’re not fired; they’re just laid off with no insurance and no check in the middle of a time where the country is screwed up and nobody knows what to do — that’s a problem.”

While Riddick did not mention Story by name, she is the only board member who has publicly suggested furloughing school division staff.

The resolution, and the rest of the agenda for Thursday’s meeting, can be found at bit.ly/SuffolkSBmtg611. The meeting begins at 5 p.m. at City Hall with the recognition of graduates from the College and Career Academy at Pruden before going into closed session at 6 p.m. The public meeting is scheduled to resume at 7 p.m.