Superintendent calls for mediation in wake of alleged incidents involving board member

Published 10:41 pm Saturday, September 11, 2021

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After saying that School Board member Sherri Story had harassed principals at two city schools and entered others without proper administrative escorts in the past week, Suffolk Public Schools Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III has called for a mediation session between the two of them.

Gordon asked during the board’s Sept. 9 meeting that board chairwoman Dr. Judith Brooks-Buck to be a witness and possible mediator during the session, and she suggested that board attorney Wendell Waller also be a part of the mediation.

Story declined to comment about the situation after the meeting.

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Gordon said he was concerned about what he described as Story’s continued violation of norms and protocols.

“This week, we have issues where I’ve had two principals that have been deliberately targeted by Ms. Story for issues questioning their leadership,” Gordon said. “We’ve also had Ms. Story violating norms and protocols by visiting a school and not walking around the school with administration, actually coming into issues with a teacher, and just some other things that we really need to talk about.”

For nearly two years, he said, “it seems to be this constant conflict of what needs to happen in Suffolk Public Schools, and I’m pretty much to the point where us being defensive about everything that occurs is no longer going to occur.”

Gordon wants the meeting with Story and Brooks-Buck “to resolve some of these issues,” but said he is concerned for himself and the other principals that there will be “some level of retaliation.”

Gordon has asked for a meeting to be set up at the earliest possible convenience with Story and Brooks-Buck “to resolve some of these issues.”

“To me, it’s really all about respect, collaboration and teamwork,” Gordon said. “So I want to put that on the record. We can have a conversation offline Ms. Story, Dr. Buck, just set up a meeting. But I need this to end today.”

Brooks-Buck said the board was informed of COVID-19 protocols last month that unless in the lobby or front office of a school, that there were to be no visitors in schools without one of that school’s administrators — a principal, assistant principal or their designee — escorting that person inside the building.

“If anyone, be it a board member, a public citizen, whomever — we have COVID protocols — enters a school building, the principal is responsible for the school building,” Brooks-Buck said. “If you are not escorted by an administrator, principal or assistant principal, or the designee of the principal to another place in the building, you will be escorted by security out of the building. School Board member, or anyone else, those protocols go for anyone.”

Brooks-Buck said board members have been trained in their role and should understand and know what it is. She said she had no issues with the meeting, but that Waller should be there.

“I want our administrators and our staff to understand it is not to go into buildings and try to tell teachers, administrators or anyone else what to do or how to do their jobs,” Brooks-Buck said. “I cannot make it clearer than that for anybody on this board. And we should know better. … We’ve had the training, we know what it is we’re supposed to do, we’re adults and we need to carry ourselves in a manner that exemplifies what we’ve been trained to do as School Board members.”

Though Story was part of the board that selected Gordon to become superintendent in October 2019, their relationship has deteriorated from there.

Story has sued the other members of the board twice on issues related to the Freedom of Information Act. The board is appealing a Suffolk Circuit Court decision in July 2020 that said it violated provisions of the act — it has appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court — and settled another FOIA-related case. Gordon testified in defense of the other board members during the first case.

On July 23, 2020, Gordon filed a hostile work environment complaint against Story, and on December 8, 2020, an investigation found Gordon’s allegations credible, though there was not enough evidence to support a “legally actionable” case based on race. However, because she had disclosed publicly that Gordon had filed the complaint, it “create(d) at least some risk of an actionable retaliation claim.”

And at 9:30 a.m. Sept. 14, another FOIA case involving Deborah Wahlstrom, a friend of Story’s and a former board candidate, will be heard in Suffolk Circuit Court. Wahlstrom has accused Gordon, Brooks-Buck and other board members of violating the act by denying her access to an open meeting.