School Board debate over policies

Published 5:09 pm Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

A tension-filled debate on revisiting policy changes helped extend Thursday, July 13’s Suffolk School Board meeting to end at midnight.

Chuckatuck Borough board member Kimberly Slingluff asked to have four policies separated from other unfinished business items marked for approval as a group for separate discussion. 

She had hoped to have the items dealing with responsibility for supplemental materials in the classroom, Freedom of Information Act requests, complaints about learning resources and School Board norms, protocols and violations sent back to the policy review committee for additional review and potential changes.

Email newsletter signup

In the discussion of the items, Slingluff questioned the change on who has responsibility for selection of supplemental materials.

She said the policy section initially read “the selection would be in accordance with policies and regulations established by the school board.” It was replaced with a wording saying  “the school board delegates the responsibility for the selection and use of supplemental materials to the individual schools.” 

“My question is if this at one point appears, according to this policy, that it had some responsibility for the school board, why are we removing that and delegating that to the schools?” Slingluff said. “I would just like clarification for that if this is a responsibility for the school board.”

SPS Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III, Ph.D., said it was a Virginia School Board Association recommendation for teachers to have more autonomy on carefully reviewing material prior to instruction. 

“This will also allow teachers to have the proactive ability to send parent consent forms home if there’s anything that they may consider to be not on all of the list or to give some individually from the professional learning communities and what they wanted to do,” Gordon explained. “Because the teachers were the actual practitioner that were doing the lesson, this policy was rewritten to allow the teachers to be the ones to use the supplemental materials as long as they had approval from their principal, as long as it also fell within the boundaries of what we’ve kind of suggested from the teaching and learning department.”

School Board Attorney Wendell Waller also confirmed the policy was recommended by the VSBA.

“It is one of these policies where school boards have the options whether they have the option as to whether they want to adopt this or not,” Waller said.

Slingluff further asked for clarification if the school board did not have the responsibility of approving the supplementary material prior to the VSBA edit.

Waller said the language in the previous policy did not include anything about school board approval. 

After which, Board Chair Tyron Riddick asked Slingluff if there was any discussion with staff on the policy prior to the meeting.

“I’m not shaming anyone for asking a question, but I just want the citizens to understand because this is not a ‘A-ha gotcha’ moment or anything of that sort. The information has been given to us. This is two months that we had this policy before us, and at this time we should be ready to make decisions. Not revisiting the policy, not rehashing this policy just to provide context,” Riddick said. “This policy has went through the policy review committee, which consists of three board members. So if it made it to us, it was some battle in the policy review committee.”

After Riddick asked board members to communicate with staff beforehand, VSBA recommendation was approved on a 7-0 unanimous vote. 

Next, Slingluff asked about the costs of providing items requested under state open records law, part of the item dealing with the time, limits on withholding records and costs for responding to FOIA requests.

“We have, what I think, is a great bit of ambiguity with regards to what someone can anticipate. And the reason why I say that is I don’t believe that there is anything established that says ‘If there’s an existing report and someone wants a hardcopy, it’s 25 cents per page. Or if they want an electronic copy, it’s $5 for a jumpdrive,” Slingluff said. “The reason why I say this is, I think someone prior to someone submitting a FOIA request, they should be able to have some idea what range they might be looking at. Otherwise, I believe there might be some subjectivity depending upon the report that is requested from the administrative office and the price that they’re quoted might make it prohibitive for them actually being able to obtain a report.”

Riddick responded to Slingluff saying FOIA always allows the person making a request with the option of receiving a detailed breakdown of fees.

Waller confirmed that saying the person can get the estimate in advance of the work being done.

Nansemond Borough member Judith Brooks-Buck, a member of the policy review committee, said the amendment to the policy had to do with the five-day rule for responding.

Holy Neck Borough member Dawn Marie Brittingham expressed her concern on FOIA updates.

“This is where my concern with FOIA comes in, we need to do a better job of making sure the constituents know what it is,” Brittingham said.

She pointed to the section saying records must be supplied at the lowest cost possible.

Riddick responded on the relevance of her question to the current policy and reiterated the school board meetings are not the time to “try to revive a dead bill.” He again stressed the importance of communication before meetings. 

Slingluff motioned to send the policy back to the committee to include “more specific details on cost per page.” The motion failed in a 2-4-1 vote with Slingluff and Brittingham voting for approval. Brooks-Buck, Whaleyville Borough member Phyliss Byrum, Cypress Borough member Karen Jenkins and Riddick in opposition. Vice Chair Heather Howell abstained. 

Riddick asked to either approve or deny the recommended changes from the committee. Brooks-Buck motioned to approve, while Brittingham motioned to deny. Byrum seconded the motion to approve the changes. 

The FOIA changes were approved 5-2, with Slingluff and Brittingham casting the opposing votes.

Before moving the next item, Riddick reiterated that the board meeting is not the place to “revive dead bills” that didn’t make it out of the policy review committee.

“You had 60 days to contact other members on your policy review committee, to explain to them how you see it. That’s the part about being board members,” the chairman said. “We’re not always going to see eye-to-eye, but we have to communicate. You can’t wait until the day of the meeting to try to do all of this stuff.”

While affirming her respect to the chair, Slingluff said it is her understanding that the policy goes through the policy review committee, comes before the board as a first read, and then the next month is the approval.

“It’s already in motion to come before the board for approval, it’s not in motion to go back to the policy review committee, is that not correct?” Slingluff asked.

Riddick responded that when the item comes to the board, the board has three possible actions — vote it up, vote it down or send it back.

The board moved on to the third item dealing with complaints about learning resources.

Slingluff asked Riddick if the approval is solely for the revisions that have been made and not for any other items within the content of the policy. 

The chairman responded explaining that if there’s a line drawn through a word and a new word beside it, that means the verbage has changed.

Slingluff expressed her concern on a portion of the policy content and wanted to send it back to the committee.

“It says that ‘materials shall be considered for their educational suitability and shall not be prescribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.’ I’m OK with the proposed change to the ordinance that’s on here. However, I would like to request that the board table the approval of this policy in order to revisit it in its entirety,” Slingluff said.  

She went on to propose striking the words ‘partisan or doctrinal disapproval’ due to the subjectivity of the application. 

“If something is being taught in the schools that is perceived to be objectionable, it should not be wrongly protected under the idea that it can be tied to a political or religious ideology, but should instead be evaluated for its own merits and whether it serves as necessary educational content,” Slingluff said.

Riddick asked if Slingluff relayed any of these concerns prior to the meeting to the policy review meeting. 

She said the policy was brought to them last month for the first read and that she didn’t.

“My approach was to come today, because if I approached them nothing could be done with what was already set in motion with a first read and then to go to the approval,” Slingluff said. “So it would’ve been prior to going to the policy committee if I am correct, unless I am misunderstanding that, Attorney Waller?”

Waller confirmed that she was not misunderstanding and reiterated the three options of voting to approve, deny or send the policy back. 

The motion was passed in a 4-3 vote, with Byrum, Riddick and Brooks-Buck voting in opposition.

On the final item dealing with school board norms, protocols and violations, Slingluff said she wanted to send the policy back on the basis that the chair should not have greater power or authority over any other elected board member.

“To delegate the right to determine what constitutes as a board violation to the chair and the board attorney negates the voice of other board members and omits the due process which safeguards from personal subjectivity and opinion,” she said. “Additionally, I believe this entire policy needs to be revisited.”

Three different motions on whether to send the policy back to the committee or approve it all failed. Therefore, the policy change was not adopted.

Riddick explained that without the policy changing, when a complaint comes to the board chair, he or she does not have the authority to dismiss it and it would be heard in closed session. He further explained it’s up to the board if they want to hear the issue or not. 

“I am not for sending information out to be used as a weapon to tarnish the great work that is going on in Suffolk Public Schools as it has been done in times past and as it has been done as recently as last month involving this same issue,” he said. “It’s different people, but some of the tactics are still remaining the same and I am tired of it. We have to move forward.”

When asked for comment after the meeting ended, both Slingluff and Brittingham declined. Jenkins expressed that they “got a lot of great stuff accomplished.” 

Howell said she continues to be open to discussion as she has been in the past 18 months.

“While it is extremely important that we do our due diligence and be prepared for the meeting,” she said. “It is also important to me as the Sleepy Hole Borough representative to allow visibility for some of the discussions that do occur behind the scenes so that the community feels fully involved [and] fully engaged.”

Riddick said he is a firm believer that an elected official’s responsibility is to come to the table well-versed and well informed.

“Because you can’t educate everyone, because everyone learns differently, and take a different time to grasp the information in one meeting when you’ve had the material for over 60 days,” Riddick said. “This is no slight to any board member, but what I would like to see is that board members pick up the telephone and exercise their right to engage in meaningful dialogue with board members who disagree with them or who see things differently. That would make the whole exchange on the dias more fruitful and beneficial to student achievement, our staff as well as overall to our whole entire school division. It’s not to silence a board member, but it is to have us make meaningful conversation ahead of time.”