Board strikes back at council on Education Committee, votes for resolution asking it to reconsider. Mayor says committee will meet with or without board

Published 12:17 pm Saturday, April 9, 2022

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The Suffolk School Board struck back on the reestablishment of the Education Committee, voting 5-2 Thursday in favor of a resolution asking that City Council reconsider the idea, though the mayor said the committee would start meeting with or without the board’s participation. 

The majority of the board, led by Chairwoman Dr. Judith Brooks-Buck, said that having joint meetings with all members of both the council and board is preferable to having any meetings of a smaller Education Committee. New board member Heather Howell and Sherri Story voted against the resolution, both saying they saw no reason not to take part in the meetings. 

“If we believe, or if we say that we believe in transparency,” Brooks-Buck said, “then there is no need for us sending you to a meeting with somebody when all of us can sit down and talk to whomever we want to talk to in public with everybody listening, everybody knowing how everybody feels and what everybody said.”

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Brooks-Buck, in explaining over several minutes why she supported the resolution, said the job of the board is not managed by council and provided her perspective on the background of what led to a 2020 Freedom of Information Act case in Suffolk Circuit Court brought by Story. 

“In truth, because we sat in a COVID-closed building for a week testifying in a hearing that was caused because we were invited by phone to meet with the mayor — then-mayor — and vice mayor to plan a meeting of the full council and the full school board,” Brooks-Buck said. “We were in less than 30 minutes, but because people wanted to be a part and were not a part, we wound up in court.”

As part of his decision, Suffolk Circuit Court Judge Carl Eason Jr. ruled following a four-day trial that a Feb. 13, 2019, meeting of the City Liaison Committee, in which Byrum and Brooks-Buck took part, was a public meeting that required public notice, which was not given by the board. The board voted to appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court. Then-Mayor Linda Johnson testified in court in support of the board and said she was the one who called the meeting, noting the two bodies had been coordinating joint meetings for more than 20 years. 

The state Supreme Court, in an unpublished decision in January, did not say anything about the public notice requirement, but did rule that there was “reversible error in the judgment of the circuit court” and sent the case back to the Suffolk Circuit Court “to allow it the opportunity to address this issue whether, in light of this Court’s rulings, Story has substantially prevailed on the merits of the case.”

It said the circuit court erred in requiring the board to contact the FOIA Advisory Council if not satisfied with the advice given by the board’s attorney, that it must seek the advisory council’s advice “in perpetuity.” The circuit court had ruled in favor of the board on several of Story’s claims. The board, according to the circuit court, was not discussing matters outside the subject matter of closed meetings and said that refusing to allow members to attend closed meetings remotely and the use of polling were not FOIA violations.

The board said it compelled the performance of a discretionary act and regulates a general course of conduct. The state Supreme Court said the circuit court’s mandamus, which is an order issued by a court to compel a government official to properly fulfill their official duties or correct an abuse or discretion, “may not be used ‘to compel the performance of discretionary acts or duties.’”

Mayor Mike Duman said Friday he was dismayed by the board’s vote. 

“I hope the School Board will reconsider their position and participate in the conversation,” Duman said via text message. “I am very disappointed and disheartened that our School Board chose not to avail themselves of any additional opportunity to communicate with City Council to address the needs and concerns of our citizens.”

The committee, he said, “will meet with or without participation from the school system. Our citizens need to stay informed and aware of council’s position on issues within our purview as it relates to school funding, safety, joint issues and opportunities for conserving tax dollars through joint endeavors.”

Council voted unanimously on Feb. 2 to adopt an ordinance to reestablish the Education Committee among the two groups and also clarify the roles, makeup and purpose of the committee. Council voted unanimously March 16 in favor of a second ordinance to add language within the city code to include the selection of alternates to the committee. 

Both ordinances were adopted as part of consent agendas at the respective meetings. 

The March 16 council resolution states that the mayor can pick an alternate member of council to serve in place of an absent council member at an Education Committee meeting, while the School Board — not just the chairperson — can also choose an alternate board member to serve in place of an absent board member. The attendance of any alternate member would be noted in the meeting minutes. 

The committee, according to the ordinance adopted by council, would meet a minimum of twice a year, or as called by the chairperson or requested by a majority of the committee, the dates and times to be determined by the chairman after speaking with members of the committee. 

According to the resolutions, the committee “will balance the primary role of the Suffolk School Board of crafting a policy for the Suffolk public schools with the responsibility of city council for oversight that is imposed by the appropriation of public funds.”

It would also “strive to strengthen the relationship between the city and schools by discussing non-instructional issues including, but not limited to, budget, capital improvements, operational savings, safety and joint uses.”

On the council side, the mayor and a member of council would be a part of the committee, along with a representative from the city manager’s office, a representative from the superintendent’s office and a member of the board. The mayor will serve as the chairperson of the committee and the council member would serve as the vice-chairperson. The city manager would appoint a secretary. 

Board members who supported the resolution said the joint meetings involving all members of the board and council have been productive and did not see the need for a separate committee. Karen Jenkins said she could support another quarterly meeting of the full council and board. 

Lorita Mayo said the joint meetings were the most effective, especially in discussions about capital improvements. 

“I believe the joint meetings are enough for us,” Mayo said. 

Tyron Riddick said it was not the ideal time to create another group and also preferred to have more joint meetings. He said the committee being reactivated now “has been dead for years, so to bring it back up again is pointless when the superintendent and the city manager meet and the mayor and school board chair meet.”

Vice Chairwoman Phyllis Byrum said she supported the resolution. She recalled that she ended up in court “and (was) accused of wrongdoings because of meeting with our mayor and other members of the city management.”

“Therefore I could not support this (committee) because it cost a great deal of money, time and unnecessary court proceedings,” Byrum said, “and I’ll never agree to it.”

Story said the vote on the resolution was a moot point since council had already voted to reestablish the committee. 

“It doesn’t matter what we say tonight,” Story said. “It already has been approved 8-0. It’s going to happen.”

She said “it has nothing to do with the first FOIA violation.”

Howell said she did not see a downside to participating with the reestablished Education Committee. 

“I just feel like with everything going on in the schools … all hands on deck seems reasonable,” Howell said. “We have a finance committee, a legislative committee, a policy committee, where … representatives go to make it a more efficient process, I’m assuming, and then come back to the table with everyone and present the information, so I’m not sure what is the perceived downside.”