On-Site and Non-instructional visit vote deadlocked

Published 9:00 am Thursday, May 16, 2024

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An ordinance to allow board members to conduct on-site and non-instructional visits to Suffolk schools deadlocked at 3-3 during the May 9 meeting. The deadlock is due to the absence of board member Phyliss Byrum, who, according to SPS board clerk Tarshia Gardner, was absent due to a medical condition that prevented her from attending.

The tie, however, does not permanently shelf the topic, according to board attorney Wendell Waller.

“The motion actually does not die,” said School Board Attorney Wendell Waller following the vote. “The motion is then carried over into your next board meeting in that one of your board members is absent from tonight’s meeting.”

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Board Members Tyron Riddick, Dr. Dawn Marie Brittingham and Kimberly Slingluff voted in opposition to Ordinance 23/24-77, amending Chapter 2, Article 2, Section 2-2.1:1 titled “Superintendent responsible for Day-to-Day school operations; site visits by School Board Members of PreK-12 schools allowed under certain conditions; site visits regarding non-instructional buildings; violation of policy.” 

Discussing the policy, Brittingham expressed her concerns about hindering board members from visiting school sites. She noted there are plenty of opportunities to be on-site during planned and prepared events.

“And there’s a lot of pomp and circumstance and it’s wonderful, and I have truly enjoyed being able to see the students and the staff on their high points and their great days,” Brittingham said. “I personally would like to have the opportunity to be able to step into a campus and just see organically what’s going on any day at any time, without having road blocks placed in my way.”

Focusing on the policy detailing board members visiting non-instructional buildings, Brittingham expressed disliking the “accusatory” language.

“I am a professional and I know how to conduct myself, and I don’t see any reason that we need to have a policy that micromanages a board member,” Brittingham said.

Riddick followed, expressing concern about the policy trying to make board members “fit into a mold.” He likewise said that he wanted to see the school function in its natural state.

“But I believe that this policy here is a direct infringement on the responsibility that is granted to board members and this policy stems from the motion I made that allowed board members to come into the schools, unannounced, to see what’s going on. You’re not going in to catch someone doing something bad. Let’s get that narrative out of our heads, because that wasn’t the spirit of the motion that I’ve made,” Riddick said. “We want to see education commence, and you can do that without walking in the classroom.”

Slingluff also expressed concerns about board members having to be accompanied by a building administrator.

“My concern with that is even if we give a 24 hour notice, which is what this policy is suggesting is required, if we want to go in the following day or 24 hours later to view the building, I feel that that’s an inconvenience to the administrator to have to take that time out and give us a tour of the building. I also feel that it could be limiting if there’s not an administrator that’s available, and if there’s not an administrator that’s available and we want to tour the building we’ve given appropriate notice, then we can’t tour the building.”

Suffolk Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III addressed the comments that were made, saying that Brittingham “at no point in time” had challenges entering any SPS buildings, to which Brittingham replied, “That’s not true.” Gordon noted that board members are asked to communicate with the School Superintendent and notify building principals due to staff being unavailable during testing.

“Ms. Slingluff brought the concern up about an administrator potentially not being present or not available. That’s the reason why we need to have some level of notice. Mr. Riddick just made the comment that a board member can walk around the school here and he can show them some things that are concerns. That means you are inspecting the property, which is something that everyone here has agreed that a board member should not do,” Gordon said. “So when we are talking about the notification piece, at any point in time when a school board member is to enter a building, I am still confused as to why notification is such a challenge.”

Brittingham says despite following proper protocol, she has been blocked from entering school buildings even after being invited. 

“And I have not been able, or been allowed to do the things that I’ve had educators around the district invite me to come and do. And so I am frustrated at this point because, as a school board member, when I have educators reach out and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to do such and such event…could you come do this in my classroom?’ And I follow the proper protocol. I have been shut down every single time.”

Brittingham reflected on the last invitation she received.

“What ended up happening was I arrived at the school, and [prior] to arriving at the school, I was told that I would not be allowed to go visit the classroom that I was invited to,” she said. “I had four people escort me around the school that I went to. That was not what I was invited to do… It is frustrating as a board member to not be able to connect with the educators. I want to feel as though I am part of this district, but as I try to engage in these activities through the proper channels, I am being turned away.”

Board Member Dr. Judith Brooks-Buck, who serves as Chair of the Policy Review Committee, said that any board member wanting to volunteer at a school can sign up in their portal.

“But volunteering in a school and being a board member are two different roles. Our roles are governance and policy,” Brooks-Buck said. “When I want to teach, and I do, like some others on the board… I sign up through the volunteer portal and volunteer, ok? As a courtesy, and it’s a professional courtesy, I contact the Superintendent and say, ‘I would like to go this school.’”

Brooks-Buck continued.

“Now, I don’t know why we’re doing this, because this has been a discussion for months. I don’t know why there’s a rebellion against structure, because policy dictates that there needs to be some structure sometimes,” she said. “If we’re concerned about the future while everybody here feels that they can govern themselves appropriately, to me, having it in policy allows you to allow for what might happen in the future, because there may be others who do not govern themselves appropriately and putting it in policy allows you that flexibility. So at this point, I don’t know why we’re having this discussion, but since we’re having it it’s out there.”