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School Board meeting embarrassing

Last Thursday’s School Board meeting was an embarrassment for all of Suffolk.

First, let’s say this: Every elected body of any size, at any level, needs somebody like Sherri Story.

Elected bodies need someone who will do the hard work. Someone who will frequently visit the institutions they are charged with governing to see what’s really going on and to learn the concerns of the ground-level stakeholders. Someone who will ask questions and fight for answers. Someone who will ensure the transparency of the body and its meetings and records. Someone who will not simply rubber-stamp every proposal that comes along. Someone who challenges the groupthink culture most large organizations, governmental or not, are prone to developing if they do not actively prevent it.

In other words, every elected body needs someone who’s just a little bit contrarian. On the current Suffolk School Board, that person is clearly Sherri Story, who has done all of the above and more since she joined the board a year and a half ago.

But because of Story’s outspokenness, most of the rest of the board members have gone out of their way to attempt to silence her. So fervent have they been in their desire to censor her that they adopted norms and protocols restricting their own free speech so that they could restrict hers, as well. Story’s violations of those norms and protocols — things like posting about school issues on her Facebook page and talking to news media about school issues — have attracted several disciplinary actions, culminating last week in a public censure that brought a lot of conflict out into the open.

Story was accused of past racist behavior by Tyron Riddick, a fellow board member and past student. Similar accusations came during the public comment period from another previous student and a previous staff member at King’s Fork High School, where Story was an IB science teacher. These allegations are truly disturbing, and we strongly suggest that Story address these accusations in a public forum soon.

On the other hand, we were disgusted by rhetoric from Karen Jenkins, another fellow board member, who found it appropriate to use a rallying cry from recent George Floyd protests — “We can’t breathe” — in her comments in favor of Story’s censure. That these last words of Floyd, a black man, as he died in Minnesota on May 25 at the hands of a white police officer would be co-opted for political purposes here in Suffolk is repugnant.

As for Story’s behavior as a board member, has she always gone about her work in the best, most productive way? No. Even before she was elected, it was clear there were going to be personality conflicts, but those have progressed beyond mere conflicts to an embarrassing spectacle that is distracting the board from its real work. Story demonstrated unprofessional behavior in refusing to participate in the rest of the meeting and then leaving early.

Story says she’s being bullied by some of her fellow board members. For what it’s worth, fellow board member David Mitnick says the same, and it seems the only problem the others have with him is that he often sides with Story in votes that have become predictably 5-2.

But other board members say it is Story who not only is bullying them but also is badgering and harassing the superintendent, department heads, school board attorney and other professionals who deserve the time and space to do their jobs without constant interference from a single board member.

Who’s really bullying who? Both sides have plenty of evidence. It just depends upon whom you ask. But we truly hope that this board can begin working together more productively very soon — for the good of our students, teachers, other staff and community at large.