Board engagement discussion met with mixed feelings

Published 8:00 am Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

A late addition to the Thursday, Feb. 8 Suffolk Public School Board meeting was approved 4-3, however, it brought about mixed feelings amongst board members and SPS Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III. Board Member Tyron Riddick made a motion to add an item regarding School Board Engagement to the agenda. According to Riddick, the item focused on the board having a “more thorough involvement” with the school division. 

“Whether it’s going out to the school events because I know that some of us don’t receive the notifications of the events that’s taken place at the schools…but also being able to go into the facilities that are owned and operated by Suffolk Public Schools,” Riddick said. “We are as the elected body are stewards of it and I believe it’s our responsibility, within limitations of course, to go out and actually know what’s going on in our school division.”

Riddick noted other school divisions having board members volunteering to read at their different schools to help “carry the load” of teachers and staff. Riddick also suggested starting an SPS School Board scholarship for students.

Email newsletter signup

“This is an opportunity where we can come from behind the dias and make some meaningful impact by having a presence in our schools,” Riddick said.

Board Chair Karen Jenkins disagreed with the ordinance, stating she was not OK with dropping in the schools unannounced, also stating she had been to six events in the same week, each time notifying Gordon and school staff.

“I’m not ok with just barging into a school without anyone knowing that I am coming. Because I don’t want to interrupt what they’re doing, their day-to-day. Because I don’t care who it is, if one of us go into a school without notification, as a school board member, the buzz goes around because they think we’re nitpicking and watching,” Jenkins said. “But I am a volunteer, so that’s one thing that we can do, you are correct. You can volunteer, sign up online, and be a part of the PTA… We need to be engaged, but we need to do it properly.”

Riddick followed, saying that he believed Jenkins misunderstood his point, explaining how the board united should develop their plan of action of being engaged with their school community, not “as individuals.”

“Individually yes, we do go out and do our separate things. However, have we asked ourselves why is it staff is alarmed when they see us come in the building on the rare occasions that we do go, and that’s because we’re not in there enough,” Riddick said.

He continued, noting that to make an “accurate assessment” of what’s happening within the schools and its overall needs, that “sometimes you need to go in without them knowing you’re coming.”

“As a person who worked in three school divisions, when you know that the higher ups are coming in, you tell the kids ‘Sit down, be quiet, mind your manners,’ you put on your best powerpoint presentation and you do what you got to do. But to see the raw data in the trenches…our teachers have surprise evaluations, so we should just pop right on in the building,” he said.

Noting that every board member has the opportunity to volunteer, Board Member Judith Brooks-Buck expressed each member’s busy schedule with work, volunteering and family obligations.

“I am not happy with or would allow anybody else to set my schedule for what we’re going to do or how we’re going into schools because…as a person who knows the difference between governance and administrative day-to-day, it’s not my job to go in and catch anybody doing anything that they’re not supposed to do. That’s not my job. I don’t do that,” Brooks-Buck said. “I go into my schools when I am invited. I’ve been at programs, as the Chair alluded to, because she’s been there with me. I go and visit when I need to visit and my constituents feel very comfortable coming to me whenever they have an issue. 

Riddick followed up by saying his request was “misconstrued” while asking for board members to “act as a unit” while making a motion to allow board members one week per quarter to enter into the school systems to “assess all real property, owned and leased by Suffolk Public Schools. Not to interfere with the day-to-day but to do a walkthrough. That’s my motion,” Riddick said.

Gordon stated he felt as if the motion as it was presented sounded as if the board was performing an investigation.

“That sounds like interfering in day-to-day operations because if anything is seen or discussed, it would come back to the Superintendent anyway. Board members shouldn’t be meeting with teachers, board members shouldn’t be meeting with principals, it’s governance and policy. And I’m really concerned that we’re potentially entering into a gray area,” Gordon said. “And school board norms will have to be adjusted. Policies will have to be adjusted. This isn’t something that can be taken with short notice without me knowing, our team knowing.”

Jenkins, Brooks-Buck and Board Member Phyllis Byrum voted in opposition. While Riddick, Vice Chair Heather Howell, Dr. DawnMarie Brittingham and Kimberly Slingluff voted in favor of the plan. 

Howell provided her individual views on the topic, expressing how “thankful” she was for the progress of the board to have meaningful dialogue while respecting and working through each other’s differences.

“At the core of my support for the board engagement motion, I really want SPS to be a cohesive community marked by both unity and diversity. In recent years, it seems there has been a great deal of tension between the board and the SPS community, including both employees and stakeholders. We begin to rebuild relationships and trust by being present, communicating openly and regularly, and interacting with each other as members of the SAME team,” Howell said. “Right now, our opportunities for authentic communication and interaction within our schools is very limited.”

Jenkins also provided her views on her vote of opposition, saying the motion was “unnecessary” as school board members and citizens can access SPS property so long as it does not interfere with the school’s day-to-day operations. Jenkins likewise notes that this is provided for in the School Board’s policies and details that even if the board enters SPS property, they are “not to communicate directly with subordinate administrators and staff” without first discussing this with the superintendent.”

“This too is clearly spelled out in policies of the School Board. If a Board Member engages in communications with subordinate administrators and staff without first discussing with the superintendent it would violate School Board norms,” Jenkins said. “The motion has the potential of inviting board members to violate this specific norm of the School Board by engaging in such discussions upon entering any building of Suffolk Public Schools. The motion did not indicate that this was not to occur.” 

Jenkins also says the motion did not require board members to notify the superintendent before entering into SPS property and that this notice is required per School Board policy. She also detailed that Virginia Department of Education regulations place the “affirmative duty” on the school superintendent to visit and inspect the schools.

“This is not the responsibility of members of the School Board. For members of the School Board to take it upon themselves to inspect school buildings would run counter to what is mandated by regulations of the Virginia Department of Education,” Jenkins said. “…the motion to allow Board Members to access property of Suffolk Public Schools was clearly deficient, violates or invites violation of policies of the School Board and regulations of the Virginia Department of Education; therefore, I voted in opposition.”

Jenkins followed that if the motion’s motivation was to provide public and school engagement, all members have the opportunity to sign up and volunteer at any SPS school, PTA, and event as well as conduct town halls to receive information from constituents.

“I support our superintendent, administrators, teachers, and staff. They are doing a great job. Our teachers are teaching and our students are learning,” Jenkins said further. “Members of the School Board should not attempt to do the work of the school superintendent but focus on the work of a School Board member. We must avoid the temptation to involve ourselves in day-to-day operations.”