No educators at the Education Committee meeting

Published 8:00 am Thursday, April 4, 2024

It was “an Education Committee without educators,” said Mayor Michael D. Duman during the Suffolk Education Committee meeting held on Wednesday, March 27, at City Hall. 

In the committee’s first gathering since 2022, Duman expressed disappointment at the lack of Suffolk School Board participation at the committee table, which saw topics such as the recent upticks in school bomb threat and quarterly financial reports. 

After reviewing the committee’s history and noting it’s creation in 2009, Duman re-emphasized the group’s purpose as a “formal channel of communication regarding issues of shared concern between the city government and the city school system” as well as their goal to “strengthen the relationship between the city and schools by discussing non-instructional issues.” Duman also detailed the committee’s revised ordinance of Sec. 2-463 stating that the committee has a minimum of two meetings per year.

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“Section D, under Education Committee, ‘The committee shall meet a minimum of two times per year or as called by the chairman or requested by a majority of the committee. Dates and times of meetings will be determined by the chairman after conferring with members of the committee,’” Duman read at the meeting. “Well, we kind of erred on that [because] we did not meet last year. It was passed in ‘22 and there was not a meeting in ‘23, and that’s on me.”

During the meeting, Duman referenced a letter he sent to SPS Board Chair Karen Jenkins on March 6, 2024, asking if the board would reconsider its position on attending the meeting.

The letter read in part;

“It is City Council’s belief that the aforementioned mission of the education committee is relevant that improved dialogue with the School Board via smaller working group would benefit both bodies and our citizens,” Duman read during the meeting. “I believe the meeting at this time would be beneficial as it would provide an opportunity for preliminary discussions prior to the joint meeting scheduled for April 10, 2024.”

Duman provided Jenkins’ response to his letter, to which it read “Greetings; I will not be attending.” Duman continued, noting his wishes for the board’s participation.

“It is still my desire that the School Board would participate in our Education [Committee] meeting,” Duman said. “But by code with or without them, we will meet the requirements of the ordinance and meet twice a year.” 

On the bomb threat issues, Interim Chief of Police James Buie says that he has met with the Suffolk Fire Department and SPS Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III to make sure that their emergency responses were coordinated. Buie also discussed the SPD receiving help from dogs who will be able to sniff out bombs during emergencies.

City Manager Albert S. Moor II discussed the funding of the dogs that was detailed during the earlier Public Safety Committee meeting.

“We were looking at some of the funds from the enforcement cameras and we will be bringing forth to city council [to] accept and appropriate funding for various projects, one of which is securing two bomb dogs,” Moor said.

In a conversation with Council Member Timothy Johnson on children making bomb-threat phone calls, Buie emphasized how it’s “not a game” to make such threats.

“It’s a felony,” he said. “It goes on your record forever, it can keep you out of college, it can keep you out [of the] military, it can keep you out [of] a lot of things… Once you make that phone call, you own it.”

On quarterly financial reports, Duman said that the city receives one report from the school system at the end of the year informing them “what funds were received, what funds were extended,” and funds “left over.” He further referred to Virginia code 22.1-90 requesting that every School Board submit “at least once each year to the governing body or bodies appropriated funds to the school board a report of all its expenditures,” with the report also being “made available to the public either on the official school division website” or in “hard copy at the central school division office.” Duman further stated if a school board representative had participated at the table, discussion would have been had if they would have any issues with providing additional financial information during the fiscal year.

“…Because it would give us an opportunity to kind of see what’s coming rather than to see what is – which is at the end of the year,” Duman said. “So for planning purposes, and for our own peace of mind if you will, because we do have a responsibility to be good stewards of the taxpayer’s money….”

Following the meeting, Duman says he was pleased with the discussion from participants but noted his disappointment of the meeting being “one sided.”

“I wish the school board had chosen to participate so we could have had the advantage of listening to their opinion and their side of each one of the issues. But I think all the issues that we discussed were very pertinent, very relevant and addressed some major decisions that need to be formed in the near future in regard to our Capital Improvement Plan, in particular, as we move forward to assist the school system and addressing their student capacity issues.”

When reached for comment, Board Chair Karen Jenkins detailed her reply sent to Duman.

“I shared with him that I would not be attending the education committee meeting and he was made aware why as he has been for the past two years, so it should not have been a surprise or an issue for him,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins referred back to the board’s voting twice to not participate in the Education Committee and noted her duty to uphold the will of the board. She also clarified board member attendance at the committee.

“Let’s make it crystal clear, board members can attend as an individual, but they cannot speak or engage in conversation on school board business, because they cannot represent the board at the meetings,” Jenkins said. “Let me also make it crystal clear, I as Chair, and we as a board welcomes the opportunity to collaborate and meet with the Mayor and City Council to share our concerns, needs and progress of Suffolk Public Schools, that’s why we have created Joint Meetings where both the entire school board and city council can do just that. It is my hope that Mayor Duman doesn’t hold a grudge against the board and Suffolk Public Schools, because we voted not to participate in his education committee meetings.”

Jenkins continued.

“We are hopeful that Mayor Duman and the City Council approves our budget so that providing a world-class education can continue, maintenance and safety issues can be resolved and salaries can continue to be increased for our employees. I am looking forward to our first joint meeting this year that will be held on April 10th and I hope we can have at least two more before the year ends,” Jenkins said. “I am hopeful that the Mayor and city council come to our joint meeting next week to engage respectfully, willing to listen with an open mind, and conduct business in a productive manner as adults should.”