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Muzzled Mecklenburg trustees walk away

SoVaNow.com / August 20, 2014
Tensions erupted at the Monday night meeting of the Mecklenburg County School Board as two members, Dale Sturdifen and Glenn Edwards, walked out of the meeting, angered by a decision to drop board member comments from the proceedings.

The walkout, which nearly deprived the full board of the quorum it needed to proceed, is the latest rupture in an ongoing dispute between supporters and critics of Superintendent of Schools Dr. James Thornton.

Sturdifen and Edwards claimed they were being censured after Sturdifen was denied the chance to address the board during the public comment period.

The tone for meeting was set when Sturdifen asked the acting chairman, Thomas Bullock of South Hill, to insert a period for board member comments into the agenda. The request was denied.

Sturdifen then took the unusual step of rising from his seat and venturing to the podium in front of the room where members of the public are invited to address the board. Sturdifen said he was excusing himself so that he could offer comments he had planned to make during the board member comment period. Before he could comment, Sturdifen was ruled out of order by Bullock and denied the chance to speak. Sturdifen then said goodbye and left the building. Edwards immediately followed.

Contacted after the meeting, Sturdifen said his departure was intended to make a point: “It was a matter of principle,” as well as an objection, in his view, to being denied the right to represent his constituency and voice their concerns.

For years, School Board meetings have included a time slot, at the end of the proceedings, for board members to raise issues of personal interest. The agenda item was removed earlier this year after Edwards asked to limit each member’s comments to six minutes — the same time limit imposed on public speakers at the meeting. Edwards called for the change after another member, Sandra Tanner, began making extended speeches.

Several members of the audience expressed outrage after Sturdifen was gaveled down by Bullock and pressed the board to explain why its members are denied the same right to speak afforded the public. They were told by Thornton that the school board’s attorney, Craig Wood, had advised against allowing for board members comments during the meeting. Thornton also cited guidance from the Virginia School Board Association in support of the change.

Thornton added that the comment periods were often nothing more than a political platform, and that trustees have ample opportunity to speak to items on the agenda. Trustees who want to discuss a particular issue can ask to have the topic placed on the agenda. However, such requests must be timely and made before the meeting agendas are prepared, Thornton explained.

According to Thornton, Wood addressed this issue in an e-mail shared with Sturdifen. Wood wrote, “The board agenda allows for public comment to allow the public to address the board. It is not for the board to make comments to the public. A board member who ignores the stated agenda and attempts to use public comment for some other purpose can be declared out of order by the chair.”

Thornton said he requested and received the opinion as soon as he learned that Sturdifen had signed up to speak during the public comment session.

When chairman Robert Puryear first attempted to eliminate board member comments from the agenda, several months before, he announced that no items would be placed on the agenda unless a majority of the board expressed a desire to discuss it. Thornton said, to the best of his knowledge Sturdifen had not asked to have any discussion item placed on the agenda. Puryear was not at Monday night’s meeting. Therefore, he could not confirm whether he had been contacted by Sturdifen before the agenda was prepared.

Following the meeting, Thornton said, “The protocols to run an effective and orderly meeting are in place for a reason. The board decided on these procedures after attending training sessions. Mr. Sturdifen has a right to speak during all reports, all action items, and can bring any item he wishes to discuss to the board during agenda prep or any time prior to the next agenda being published. No one is preventing him from having his opportunity to speak.”

During a prior meeting of the trustees, Sandra Tanner stepped down to the speaker’s podium in order to address the board as a private citizen, not as a member of the board. She was allowed to make her comments at that time without objection.

Tanner said the difference between her actions and Sturdifen’s were that she was speaking, not during the public comment period, but during the board member comment period. She also said she was trying to prove a point, that notwithstanding her election to the board, she is also a member of the public and should be allowed to speak as such.

In other business at Monday, trustees recognized the recipient of the first ever “Rookie of the Year” award, Russell Thomas. Deputy superintendent Melody Hackney, in making the award, said Thomas, “exemplifies the mission of the school and goes above and beyond.” She also called him dedicated and committed. As the industrial arts teacher at Bluestone High School, Thomas helped students use artistic, mathematical and carpentry skills on several building projects that beautified the school and the community.

Sheila Morse Lowry was named “Educator of the Year.” Hackney said, because of her “commitment and dedication and genuine love and concern” for her students at South Hill Elementary School. Lowry is an instructional assistant at South Hill Elementary, who is involved with lunch buddies. Speaking to trustees, Lowry said, “this was a complete surprise. It was a complete surprise. I do love the students and what I am doing. I feel very, very blessed.”

Chris Reed shared video highlights of Mecklenburg County’s first day back to school for the new school year.

Park View High School senior Jeremiah Gilmer and Mecklenburg County tourism coordinator Justin Kearns presented a 30 second Instagram video prepared by Park View High School students, which was designed to attract teens to visit Mecklenburg County. Before showing it to the trustees, Kearns said he shared it with a friend who produces films in Hollywood for Lionsgate Films, and it was praised for its video quality and message.

Hackney shared an overview of the work done over the summer by the teachers and administrators of Mecklenburg County “as they continue their focus towards instructional improvement and gains in student achievement.” She, along with instructional coordinators Sandra Boswell and Ellen Burnett, also thanked the many teachers who spent the summer designing a new math and language arts curricula for Mecklenburg County students.

One of the changes to the math curriculum includes reintroducing an instructional program known as Cortez Math at the middle and high school levels. This program was implemented before, secondary education administrator and CTE programs coordinator, Kristy Sommerville-MidgetteSommerville-Midgette explained, but abandoned, after students who used the program failed to show appropriate improvements in their SOL test scores. The program cost $22,000, and because of the cost, Tanner asked for assurances that the school would not simply use Cortez Math for one year before moving on to something new. “We need to give these programs time to work,” said Tanner.

Sommerville-Midgette said the teachers and coordinators wanted to reinstitute the Cortez Math program after seeing the improvements in SOL test scores among students in Southampton County schools who currently use Cortez Math. Sommerville-Midgette said the new Cortez Math curriculum is “aligned with” and better prepares the students for success on the SOL’s.

Heather Tuck shared video highlights of the many improvements to the school buildings made by members of the faculty and staff as well as the maintenance department and the newly hired groundskeepers. She also explained how the school buildings new key card security system will operate. It is designed to prevent outside personnel from having free access to the building. Trustee Dora Garner expressed her concern that the new security system would prevent fire and police from being able to enter the buildings when needed. Tuck did not explain how this issue would be resolved.

Trustees approved the purchase of a new online diagnostic and instructional program, known as I-Ready. The nearly $100,000 program which Sommerville-Midgette said would be paid using a mix of federal and local funds, was purchased in response to teacher and administrator call for updated resources to track student achievement in the areas of reading and mathematics and SOL performance. The program is approved by the Virginia Department of Education and can be used for “home collaboration.”

During the public comment period, Wanda Bailey questioned why students who are in the band need to undergo drug testing. Drug testing was instituted this year for students involved with extracurricular activities. Bailey noted that band is not an activity, but a class taught as part of the school curriculum, yet it is the only such class where students must undergo drug testing.

Bailey also questioned the statements made by Puryear in which he claimed that the superintendents salary was essentially unchanged. She asked if her reading of the contract, which differed from Puryear’s explanation was correct. Bailey said she read the previous contract as paying Thornton a $9,000 stipend to cover the cost of using his personal car for school business. Under the new contract, according to Bailey, Thornton would receive a government-issued car for school use, yet continue to receive the $9,000 stipend.

Scott Pulley, a parent of two Park View Middle School students questioned why each year he had to repeat paperwork for his children that the school system should have on file. He also asked about the new security system, “as far as the security card, what about emergency personnel – police – how will they get in” to the buildings?” He last remark criticized the school board for spending money to hire an architect “to talk to citizens” about their desires for a new school building. Pulley said, “I don’t know why we can’t have a public meeting in a gymnasium and ask the public what they think. I don’t think we are getting any real good public input and I don’t need an architect to ask me my opinion.”

Before approving the payment of the bills, Garner questioned several expenditures, including nearly $2,000 spent on furniture – over $800 went for tables and chairs at Clarksville Elementary school – and $3,500 spent on consulting fees to Ann O’Toole and Nancy Blackwelder. Director of finance Donna Garner (no relation to Dora) said she would have to research the reason for those expenditures and get back to her.

Trustees approved six new hires for the 2014/15 school year. These are in addition to the 51 new teachers already hired by the school system. These new hires are: Jessica Wright, guidance counselor at Clarksville Elementary School, Susan Shuart, Park View Middle School grade 8 math teacher, Sharon Spain, South Hill Elementary school special education teacher, Jerome Williams, dual enrollment physics teacher at Park View High School, Allen DeWitt, Park View High School earth science teacher and Angie Williamson an instructional assistant at Clarksville Elementary School.

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Comments

Get Puryear and Thornton out of command in Mecklenburg County! Puryear gives such "good" advice on how the county should be run, but can't run his own business without being a crook. Thornton, well there's no need for him here, he just gets to stick around and spend more money that Mecklenburg already doesn't have...

Comments

"The board decided on these procedures after attending training sessions." Hey morons maybe next time your training session should start with this: Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Comments

"They were told by Thornton that the school board’s attorney, Craig Wood, had advised against allowing for board members comments during the meeting." This reminds me of another ridiculous deferral to attorneys by another idiot Mitt Romney who said he and his attorneys would decide if we go to war.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r3BbIPbLSRw

Comments

So if Tanner was allowed to speak as a private citizen then why was Dale Sturdifen not allowed to do the same. Also why is Thornton explaining why the board members should not talk instead of the chairman. I thought they the board members were the voice of the people the people we voted in and that work for us. So in a way he is saying we cannot speak.

Comments

We are currently reading what was written in the Cumberland County History Books a few years ago!! They said this would happen. It is ashamed that 50% of our experienced teachers have vanished or decided to retire.

Comments

It is so sad to watch this happen. Mecklenburg used to be a shining star in it's region and now it is the butt of every education joke. The school board should be ashamed of themselves and I hope each and every one pray for forgiveness every night for what they are doing to the children in that school district. I cannot believe that people are not marching in the streets.


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