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U-46 board debates use of agreement wording
By Seth Hancock
The Board of Education in School District U-46 discussed board member agreements, and several points within the document derived controversy at its meeting on Monday, Feb. 26. The agreements will be voted on at the upcoming meeting on Monday, March 5.
The agreements differ from the last board member agreements that were voted on in 2015, and board member Jeanette Ward asked for a rationale for the changes.
There were agreements derived in 2016 that never came to the board and Donna Smith, the board’s president, said “the intention” was to vote on those agreements in 2016 but she forgot to bring it to the board.
“I hate to say that maybe I needed to be reminded, but maybe I needed to be reminded,” Smith said.
Regarding the differences from the 2015 agreements, Smith said “I’m not sure that much has changed.” But Ward went on to list several changes, two of which sparked the longest discussions.
The two most controversial changes were under “Board Member Roles and Responsibilities” which stated “Board members will carefully consider what they post on social media before they post it, avoiding statements that might be volatile,” and “Board members will not evaluate staff in public.”
Ultimately after an over 42 minute discussion, Smith decided the agreements will come back for a vote as is after implying she would make some changes during the discussion.
Ward asked: “What constitutes volatile?”
Smith said: “Honestly, I don’t need the word volatile in there. I think we should just be careful what we put on social media”
“To me, it speaks of self censoring and other board members saying to you ‘well your post is volatile, you shouldn’t have posted it,’” Ward replied.
Smith said “that’s fine” because those situations will still arise regardless of whether board agreements are approved or not as she said the agreements hold no authority.
Board member Phil Costello agreed with Ward saying the word volatile is “subject to interpretation” and that “we should be allowed to have free expression by design.”
“It’s not ambiguous but it is constrictive and I think that’s what I would object to with regards to volatile,” Costello said.
Ward noted a contradiction within the agreements regarding the portion concerning volatile social media posts as the document also states that members of the board “have an obligation to express their opinions.” Members of the board’s majority have on several occasions strongly opposed posts made by Ward because she has expressed an opinion that differed from them.
Board member Traci Ellis, who has on several occasions posted private email addresses and private information of members of the public, said the word volatile “isn’t in any way constrictive.”
“I think there is a need to call attention to potentially, specifically, potentially volatile things,” Ellis said.
As an example, Ellis said it would be volatile to call a member of the staff in the district a “pedophile” or any other accusation, however, accusations of that level are already covered under law regardless of any board agreements as there are libel, slander and defamation laws on the books.
Ward asked if this portion includes all social media, including private pages. Ellis has previously posted on her private page posts equating the American flag to “toilet paper” and calling the Republican National Convention a “Klanvention.”
“You know what, it would be up to you Jeanette, honestly,” Smith said and added: “I can’t hold you to anything, I can’t hold Sue (Kerr) to anything and I can’t hold Traci, Melissa (Owens) or Phil, I can’t hold anybody.”
“Then why have the agreement?” Ward asked.
“It’s an aspirational standard for how the board would like to conduct our self,” Ellis said.
Kerr said “I would tend to take out the word volatile” as it is not properly defined in the agreements, and she said “the people who judge us will be the voters.”
Owens suggested changing the word from volatile to harmful, “particularly if it is harmful to a stakeholder,” which board member Veronica Noland agreed.
Ward said you would have the “same question” on how harmful is defined.
Casey Pearce, the board’s student advisor, said leaving the word volatile in the document ultimately didn’t matter and that she trusted that board members already think about what they post on social media.
“I personally would trust you and would hope you have the presence of mind to think before you post, and I trust that you do,” Pearce told the board.
Smith said that she would take the portion with volatile out to which Ellis said “I’m not ok with it” because “there’s a difference.” Ellis said if “none of it has any consequence” then the board shouldn’t vote on any agreements.
Regarding evaluating staff in public, Ward said: “Those who derive their income from public tax dollars should expect to be subject to public scrutiny.”
Ellis said “no, they’re still employees” and staff should only be evaluated in closed session, out of the sight of the taxpayers who fund those employees. She said it’s “so egregiously inappropriate in any context to publicly evaluate your employee.”
“They get the scrutiny from the public, not from the board member that is their boss,” Noland said.
Smith ultimately said since “we’re not going to agree” she would bring the agreements back for a vote as is with no changes.