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Board censures one of its own

A majority of Suffolk School Board members laid bare their differences with fellow member Sherri Story Thursday in voting 5-2 in favor of a censure resolution against her.

Those differences centered around whether Story “willfully and deliberately” violated board policies and norms, along with the confidentiality of discussions during closed meetings, in what she has said has been an effort to provide transparency in school division operations.

While Story got tangible support from residents who spoke out against the resolution, and from board member David Mitnick, the rest of the board did not see things the same and voted to censure her.

While no tangible consequence comes with the censure, it is a public rebuke of the behavior outlined in the resolution. Story, during her seven-minute defense, said she would “reserve the right to take legal action to enable me to do my job fully for the benefit of all my constituents in the Chuckatuck Borough.” Story had hired an attorney last June in the wake of two previous disciplinary actions taken against her.

Board chairwoman Phyllis Byrum said Story missed trainings that would have helped her understand board policies and norms, and despite repeated warnings, has continued with the violations, many of which stem from Story’s Facebook posts over the past nine months.

Byrum said all new board members — Story, Tyron Riddick, Lorita Mayo and Karen Jenkins began new terms on the board in 2019 — were offered the opportunity for training through the Virginia School Boards Association. She said all but Story completed that training, but that all of them received PowerPoint materials from the VSBA training. All board members, including Story and then-Superintendent Dr. Deran Whitney, attended a subsequent VSBA training in Charlottesville, in which norms and protocols, along with board governance, were discussed.

Byrum said she met with Story for several hours in late February 2019 to discuss 15 to 20 items of concern. Following that, Byrum said she met again with Story, as well as Whitney and school division attorney Wendell Waller at the School Administrative Office.

The next month, the board adopted, by a 6-0 vote, its norms and protocols at a meeting in which Story was absent due to illness. All members received a copy of it.

Byrum said she discussed other violations of the norms and protocols with Story in an April 22, 2019, phone conversation, and on May 9, 2019, Story received a written reprimand for violating board norms and protocols. On July 11, 2019, the board adopted the norms and protocols into policy, and two months later, Story received a written notice of violation of the board norms and protocols, Byrum said.

“For 18 months we have discussed, cautioned and reminded Ms. Story of the norms and protocols of the Suffolk School Board,” Byrum said. “Over these 18 months, we’ve offered VSBA training for new board members, we as a board have attended training at VSBA, we have worked diligently to resolve concerns, we have attempted to resolve violations of the norms and protocols.”

Story, who put an ad in Wednesday’s Suffolk News-Herald refuting the charges against her that were outlined in the resolution, defended herself during Thursday’s meeting. She said she is entitled to rights of free speech, due process and equal protection — rights she argued were not being respected.

She also charged the board with “often being out of compliance” with the Freedom of Information Act and reiterated her call for transparency, saying the board was trying to muzzle and punish her.

“Regardless, I will always try to comply with the law and with the goal of keeping citizens informed,” Story said.

She said she had asked for information from Byrum last Friday when she received a copy of the censure resolution. However, Story said she did not get that information until 3 p.m. Thursday — too late, she said, to use in her defense.

“This process, and the rules I allegedly violated, are illegitimate and totally inappropriate for this board,” Story said.

Mitnick, participating in the meeting virtually, defended Story, saying the board is neither open to change nor has an open mind when it comes to people’s ideas and favors the status quo. He said Story is pursuing accountability and wants to do things by the law, and by FOIA, “but for some reason that angers those of you on the board.” Her censure, he said, is due to her being different.

The board would be better off, he said, if it would find the merit in what Story says.

“I’m very upset by the censure resolution because when we received the document on Friday afternoon that concluded with what it means to be censured,” Mitnick said, “those behaviors that it defined would not be a way to even treat a dog much less a fellow school board member.”

Other board members had a different story to share.

Karen Jenkins said Virginia law is clear that the day-to-day operations of schools belongs to the superintendent and not board members, and that it is not the role of a School Board member to interfere.

She accused Story of using her Facebook page to plant false suspicions — such as suggesting illegal meetings had occurred and saying that Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III was receiving a $10,000 raise rather than a cost-of-living adjustment as allowed for in his contract. Jenkins said Story was sowing the seeds of “discord and deceit” among other board members.

“We have all been made aware of this from day one, and you, board member Story, (have) willingly violated this law as often as you feel like it,” Jenkins said, “because following the law, policies, norms and protocols is something, in many cases, that you feel you do not have to follow. It is apparent that when you don’t get your results that you desire, the policies and protocols (and) procedures do not apply to you.”

Directing her comments toward Story, Jenkins said the board was not trying to silence her, but just wants what she says to be truthful, and that her violations of board norms and policies had been addressed previously.

“We witness on a daily basis now in this world where people in position feel that following rules and the laws don’t apply to them,” Jenkins said, “and because of that, people are falsely criticized, or for no true cause, and people even lose their lives due to their very breath being taken away. School Board member Story, we can’t breathe.”

Jenkins’ final words were an apparent reference to the rallying cry of protesters in the wake of the May 25 death of George Floyd, a black man who died in Minneapolis, Minn., with a white police officer’s knee on his neck. Among some of Floyd’s last words were, “I can’t breathe.”

Some in the audience took exception to Jenkins’ use of the phrase.

“That’s disgusting,” a person in the audience said. “That’s out of order,” said another, before Riddick called for a point of order.

Lorita Mayo echoed other members who said board members should not interfere in the day-to-day operations that are to be handled by the superintendent.

Moving forward, she said that “it is imperative that we work together in unity as a team, a unified body, a unified board. At times we may have a difference in opinion, as we are all human, with certain beliefs and ideas. However, the end result must be what is best for the education of our children — academically, socially and emotionally. Put egos aside and the need for attention and do the work that is necessary for our students, and that they so richly deserve.”

Tyron Riddick said the VSBA training taught him that boards should govern through policy, appropriate money and be good stewards of what it has been given. He said the board can decide to make changes if the superintendent does not perform the day-to-day operations to their satisfaction, but that boards are not to interfere in that.

Riddick, though saying he shares some of the same concerns as Story, accused her of “purposely misleading constituents” about issues with Whitney, Gordon and other school issues.

He said he has also overlooked how she acted around him when he was a student and she a teacher at King’s Fork High School.
“But this behavior,” Riddick said, pointing to the resolution, “this behavior is out of control.”

Vice chairwoman Dr. Judith Brooks-Buck said Story has made it her business to distort facts and write and say untruths about Brooks-Buck on her Facebook page. She said Story’s attempts to cause confusion among the board have been troubling — “to belittle our administrative staff, to demean our attorney and the board chair, to bring nonsense to my borough and even to my neighborhood.” She said Story had also spoken falsehoods about superintendent salaries.

“When you were informed by a board member that your Facebook posts and the falsehoods that you placed on Facebook generated a threat to a teacher who supported me, you took no responsibility for it,” Brooks-Buck said. “But the truth, Ms. Story, if you put oil on rags and hand someone some matches, you are responsible for the fire.”

Story declined her rebuttal time and, following the censure vote, abstained from every vote thereafter. Just as the board member comment period was about to begin, she rose from her chair and walked out of the council chamber, a few of her supporters beside her.

Reached Friday, Story had no additional comment beyond what she said during the seven minutes she had to speak at the meeting.