Franklin City School Board meeting marked by division

Published 12:41 pm Friday, October 14, 2022

A striking Franklin City School Board work session Thursday, Oct. 6, featured, at times, pronounced division.

Franklin City Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Tamara Sterling submitted a memo Sept. 23 announcing her resignation from the school system effective Nov. 30. The school board was set to take action regarding her resignation Sept. 29 at a special called meeting, but the lack of a quorum pushed the board’s action on the matter to the Oct. 6 meeting.

During this Oct. 6 meeting, there was disagreement between board members over what constituted permissible meeting procedure; an effort to remove one member as chair; a walkout from three members of the board over concern about violation of procedure; an exit from Sterling; stark comments from the public about certain board members, the superintendent, the board as a whole and the status of the school system; an apology from the chair for the behavior of some of his colleagues; and ultimately, after a closed session involving the full board, a 6-0 vote, with one abstention, accepting Sterling’s resignation.

Ward 2 Board Member Arwen Councill, who was attending the meeting remotely, made the choice to abstain.

WHAT LED UP TO THE WALKOUT

Ward 1 Board Member and Board Chair Robert Holt summarized in a Monday, Oct. 10, interview what took place in the opening minutes of the Oct. 6 meeting.

He said that At-Large Board Member and Board Vice Chair Carrie Johnson called for a board vote.

Robert Holt

“She made a motion that they remove me from chair, and I immediately said there’s no procedure for doing that, and there is none,” he said. “I had checked with our school board attorney before that, so you just can’t arbitrarily remove the school board chair, and I said that’s out of order, so that was kind of the end of that.

“And then they made a motion to eliminate Citizens’ Time, and somebody seconded that, and then I also said that the chairman has the authority to add anything to the agenda that he or she feels appropriate,” Holt continued. “I knew that a lot of citizens were upset last week when four (board members) didn’t show up to accept Dr. Sterling’s resignation (on Sept. 29), and I knew that they wanted to come and speak about it, and it kind of makes sense to me, so that’s why I allowed them to have Citizens’ Time.

“And I guess after the second failure of motion, then that’s when they walked out,” he said, referring to Johnson, Ward 3 Board Member Tonya Smith and Ward 4 Board Member Marchelle F. Williams. “And Dr. Sterling walked out too, which surprises me.”

Sterling’s departure came shortly after that of the three board members. She appeared to tell a school employee that she would be back shortly. She did not return to the dais during the meeting.

In a Monday interview, Johnson shared her own perspective of what led up to her leaving the Franklin City Council Chambers on Thursday.

“My concern was the violation of procedure,” she stated.

First, she noted that Councill was participating in the meeting remotely, and School Board Governance and Operations policy dictates that the majority of the board must approve the member’s remote attendance. 

“Chairman Holt disregarded the item on the agenda that called for the vote and said it was unnecessary,” she said. “I made a motion to allow the remote attendance.”

She said it was seconded by Williams, and Ward 6 Board Member Jerry McCreary offered during discussion that he, too, felt Councill should be allowed to attend remotely. The motion passed unanimously.

“Secondly, Chair Holt completely skipped approving the agenda and, instead, called for Citizens’ Time which is not on the agenda at a work session,” Johnson said.

Policy BDDH in the governance states, “The agenda for regular monthly meetings of the Franklin City School Board will provide for a ‘Citizens’ Time’ from approximately 7:30 p.m. to 7:45 p.m. after the ‘Good News’ report.”

The board governance document found on the FCPS does not directly reference the meeting classification “work session.”

Citizens’ Time is not an item listed on the Oct. 6 agenda, though item 1.6 is listed as “New Agenda Item” with no additional details.

Johnson stated that the calendar of work sessions and regular sessions are voted on by board members in July, “so to change the format of a meeting would require a vote.

“I agreed that citizens should be allowed to speak — but it should be at the next meeting as that one was our regular meeting,” she said. “Having a Citizens’ Time at a work session is a violation of policy.”

A portion of policy BDDC in the board governance states, “The preparation of the proposed agenda is the responsibility of the school board chair with the assistance of the superintendent. Any member of the school board may submit items for inclusion on the proposed agenda.”

Item 1.5 on the Oct. 6 meeting agenda was “Approval of the Agenda,” but Johnson said, “It is my understanding that the agenda was never approved, which puts in question the legitimacy of the entire work session.”

Carrie Johnson

Johnson highlighted a portion of policy BDDH dealing with rules for Citizens’ Time.

The governance states, “The school board will not permit speakers to discuss specific personnel or student concerns during the public session, but may be invited to do so during ‘Closed Meeting.’ Names, titles or positions which can identify specific individuals will not be allowed during the public session.”

Johnson said it was her understanding that there were multiple violations of this allowed by Holt.

“When it was apparent that Chairman Holt was completely disregarding policy, I excused myself from the meeting,” Johnson said. “I will not willingly nor knowingly participate in something that goes against policy and procedure. 

“Chairman Holt said it was his prerogative to do as he wished as he is the chair,” she added.

Then she pointed to part of policy BBAA, which states, “School board members shall have

no authority or duties except such as may be assigned to them by the school board as a whole.”

“The board chair is one vote,” she said. “He or she is a facilitator who presides over meetings according to Robert’s Rules of Order and is responsible for upholding our policies and procedures. This did not take place Thursday evening. As such, I chose to leave.”

After the departure of Johnson, Smith and Williams, Holt took inventory at the meeting of the board members that remained.

“We have Ms. Councill, we have Mr. McCreary, we have myself and we have (Ward 5 Board Member) Brittany (S. Powell),” he said. “We have a quorum.”

Before the meeting proceeded further, Powell asked, “The board can vote for Citizens’ Time, correct?”

She was told that this was correct, that during the approval for the agenda, the board can vote to add Citizens’ Time.

COMMENTS FROM THE PUBLIC

Clyde Bailey was the first to speak during Citizens’ Time.

“I’m going to try to keep it just about the kids, and we just saw just then that it ain’t about the kids,” he said, referring to the walkout. “It’s about the adults on how they want to continue to try to run the school system with this superintendent. 

“I’m just saying and I ain’t sugar coating nothing, just being real with everything and everybody that our kids are suffering, and then too many teachers just want to keep leaving and leaving or getting pushed out because of the superintendent,” he added. “She already put in her resignation to go. It should be two weeks, and she should be gone and just keep it simple. We don’t need to keep going back and forth on who did what, who did this. So that’s just my thought on it, and that’s it.”

Next to speak was Pearlie Banks.

“I’m here tonight representing the Civic Forum that was newly formed, and I’m here to discuss the resignation of the superintendent,” she said. “I’m sorry that she stepped out (of the room), but I’d like to commend her for her resignation. I believe that instead of waiting until (November) the 30th, if she feels that her time here is over, then she needs to go. There’s no need to drag it out.”

Banks said she would like to commend Sterling for the accomplishments that she stated she has. 

“We all know that you can’t have any accomplishments without having failures and errors,” Banks said. “So we have a lot of errors.”

Then she turned her focus to the board members who left the meeting.

“I am distraught to see that those persons who have been selected to sit on the board are so childish that they walked out,” she said. “And I do not understand why whoever appointed them would allow them to stay where they are.”

She thanked Holt for sharing with the Civic Forum his vision for the board.

“I’m just sorry that this has turned into a circus when it didn’t have to be,” she said.

Again referencing the walkout, she said, “I’m getting ready to sit down, because this really bothers me when I see adults who are supposed to be leading our children, who are supposed to have the interests of our children, have the audacity to come in here and act like that. How dare they?!”

She concluded her comments by saying, “We aren’t that many, y’all, so why can’t we all work together for the common good of our children?”

The next speaker was Iasia Ryan, who has a child that attends S.P. Morton Elementary School. Ryan said she was disappointed with the board’s disunity.

“I do understand that the pandemic has been hard for everyone, but this is the time where we need to come together and not really do what we’ve just seen up here,” she said. “I just say that myself and all of us need to attend more often. … I will definitely be sure to attend every single one of you all’s meetings to hold my board member accountable for my child.”

Brenda Peterson stepped up next and said, “For the past 34 years I have been an educator — 20 years in middle school, the rest in high school, teaching AP classes, teaching dual enrollment classes — and I have never in my entire life seen the behavior that I’ve seen here expressed today, walking out, temper tantrums, speaking over each other.

“The whole point of a school board is to act in the best interests of the children,” she continued. “The children are the ones that are getting screwed over, period. They are not getting the adequate education they need, they have attendance issues, there’s very little support for the parents, there’s very little support for the administration and the teachers and the staff, morale is at an all-time low, you have people that are fleeing in droves.”

She criticized Johnson, Smith and Williams for walking out.

“Honestly, I think anybody who cannot show up for their board meetings needs to be replaced, and anybody who cannot stay during their board meetings needs to also be replaced,” she said.

Peterson also said she thinks Sterling’s last day should be Oct. 14, “and she should just have a nice little vacation before she starts her new job in Petersburg on Dec. 1.”

It has been announced that Sterling is the new superintendent of Petersburg City Public Schools and that she will start in this role at the beginning of December.

Audrey Lee spoke next and said, “I am utterly appalled at what I’ve seen tonight. This is one for the books here.”

She said that it is Sterling’s prerogative to leave if she does not want to be here and that she has already resigned, but she then recommended that Johnson, Smith and Williams hand in their resignations as well “because they are showing that they are really not concerned about our children but more about trying to support somebody that has already handed in her resignation.”

Lee said that at the age of 68, she has been an advocate for children for most of her life, and she wants to see the best that Franklin can have in terms of the children’s education.

She commended Powell for staying in the meeting, Holt for “speaking out for right” and McCreary for “being a man that stands behind your word and your appointment.”

Amy L. Phillips, who departed the school board this summer after serving as the Ward 2 representative and board chair, spoke next.

“I just wanted to step forward and state three things: hire a superintendent, maintain a fiscally sound budget and set policy — that’s what the seven individuals that sit on that dais for the school system are challenged with doing,” she said. “It seems some people have forgotten that in the last three months.

“I stepped away, and I do not know what has happened since I stepped off on June 30, but I have sat back and watched, and I am appalled,” she continued. “I think the board has forgotten their duties.”

Amy L. Phillips

She emphasized that the three duties she mentioned are written into the Code of Virginia.

“Those that were on the board with me, we achieved Master Board status, as you are very well aware,” she said. “You are not operating as a Master Board anymore.”

She noted that there has been conversation about letting the superintendent go effective immediately or after two weeks.

“When you have someone that high up in any organization, and I’m even looking at this from the business world, letting someone go that quickly will have a larger ripple effect than a slower transition with someone else taking the helm,” she said.

She acknowledged that the school division has had employees leave.

“Y’all know, those that sat on the board with me, turnover is not isolated to this school division,” she said. “However, right now, you have the highest staffing of just about any other school division in the state.”

Phillips is now an employee of FCPS, and she described the reaction of her fellow staff members when they learned of Sterling’s resignation.

“I watched the employees of this school division in complete shock when the announcement came out,” she said. “Yes, you’ve got some that are disgruntled and some that don’t like (the superintendent), some because they’re held accountable. But I think you’re going to see your retention is going to drop dramatically with the exit of the superintendent. So I want you to take that into consideration moving forward.”

Seeing things from the staff side now, day in and day out, Phillips said, “I don’t think you’re seeing what the ripple effect from this is going to be.”

Speaking next was Dr. Alvin Harris, who opened by acknowledging the peculiarity of the situation that night.

“This is a somewhat unique circumstance,” he said.

He put a spotlight on the importance of education, noting it has been the highlight of his life and is one of the most important tools that each individual can have.

“This is America where the expression of freedom of speech is one of the most important things that any of us could have,” he said. “Unfortunately, for some members, I guess they were afraid to hear what other people had to say.”

He said that the positive aspect of forming one team “is a vision that all of us desire, and it’s the vision that will make Franklin great like it was in the past, like it can be now and like it will be in the future.”

“Getting parents involved in their children’s education, we can do that,” he said. “We don’t want to usurp what the board does, but one thing we must do — all must be involved. All must participate. All must have a voice and a vision to make Franklin (City) Public Schools the best school system that these little kids can go through.”

Addressing the four board members in attendance, he said, “We will be a team. Now, for those that don’t want to participate, let them go. But we will be a team in thought and in deeds, and I want to thank you all for giving us this opportunity to speak.”

The final speaker during Citizens’ Time was Wydia Bailey.

She greeted the board members present and said it was good to see some Franklin City Council members present, along with former Franklin Mayor Jim Councill.

Bailey advocated for the hastening of Sterling’s departure because “you cannot fill a seat until it’s vacant.”

She then turned her attention to school board members and highlighted the word “stealing.”

“Stealing is when you take something that you’re not supposed to have,” she said. “You all get a stipend for your positions or whatever you want to call it. It may not be enough to pay a mortgage, who knows, but it’s something. But several members steadily (do) not come to meetings. You should not have that position, you should not be getting a check from our city for doing nothing.”

She later added, “Mr. McCreary, Mr. Holt, Ms. Powell, Ms. Councill, I want to say ‘thank you,’ but you’re doing your job. But I applaud you for standing up and doing your job when other persons just walk out. They may think they walked out on all of us citizens tonight, they may think they stood in support of the superintendent — they did not. They walked out on the students.”

She criticized Johnson for her public back-and-forth with Holt.

“You’re the chair,” Bailey said to Holt. “If she has a problem with that, your next closed session, that’s where it needs to be dealt with, not out here amongst citizens. This is not how we do things. It’s not adult, and it’s not handling the business for the children.”

BOARD RESPONSE TO CITIZENS’ TIME

Holt said, “Thank you all for stepping up and having the courage to let us know what you think. We hear you. I want to apologize to those of you here in the general community for the behavior of some of my colleagues. These last two weeks have just been unbelievable. But we need to get back to the business of working with kids, educating kids, working on our SOL scores, working on our attendance. We have a lot of work to do, and we all need to do it together, so thank you all for participating.”

Councill also spoke, expressing gratitude for the chance to join the meeting electronically.

“I’m grateful the technology exists that I could participate in today’s meeting, and I wanted to thank the citizens who chose to come out tonight,” she said. “I feel like it’s important that the board members are able to hear from everybody, and so I appreciate them coming, and Mr. Chair, thank you for allowing Citizens’ Time.”

COMMENTS FROM PRESENT, FORMER ELECTED OFFICIALS

After the board went into closed session, former Mayor Jim Councill asked to be quoted in The Tidewater News, sharing the first thing he thought about as he watched the proceedings during the meeting. He recalled something said by the city’s former vice mayor, the late Kent Pope.

“Kent used to always say, ‘Remember, the decisions that we make, it’s all about the kids,’” Councill said.

Current City Council members present at the meeting included Ward 1 Councilman Mark R. Kitchen, Ward 2 Councilman Ray Smith and Ward 5 Councilwoman Wynndolyn H. Copeland.

During the board’s closed session, Kitchen told The Tidewater News, “We couldn’t speak publicly, but I wish that I could.”

THE CLOSED SESSION

Sterling, Johnson, Smith and Williams were present in the school board office conference room when the board convened there in closed session following the initial open session Thursday night.

“When we went in and I saw them sitting there, it was just a normal, business-as-usual kind of session, and there was no argument or anything like that,” Holt said. “We just came to fairly quick conclusions on everything.”

He noted that Sterling’s resignation was not the only topic the board discussed, but it was the main item and the one it dealt with first.

The closed session lasted for nearly two hours.

THE SECOND OPEN SESSION

Members of the public who waited for the board’s return to open session were invited to join the board in the school board office conference room. After emerging from closed session, the board voted on several items, the last of which was Sterling’s resignation. Johnson made the motion to accept it. McCreary asked for a roll call vote, and everyone voted to accept the resignation except for Arwen Councill, who abstained.

After the meeting was adjourned, a member of the public asked Holt for a copy of the policies and procedures for the board.

McCreary and Johnson began to answer, but the citizen insisted that Holt be the one who answered, ultimately telling Johnson to “shut up” when she continued answering. As the citizen continued to raise her voice, Holt asked for her to be removed as others filed out of the room.

Holt had referred the woman to the school system’s website, but Johnson said this was not fair because FCPS policy states that the policies and procedures could be provided in writing to anyone who wants them.

WHAT’S NEXT

In his Monday interview, Holt said he is ready to move on from the conflict evident between board members Thursday.

“I think the four board members that were there, that stayed, I feel like they are ready to move on,” he said. “I have no idea what the other three will do, but we hope they will come back and do their duty as a board member and we just move on to other things. We have so much to do right now. … We don’t need anymore distractions, and this has been a major distraction for two weeks.”

Holt said it was decided in closed session that Sterling’s last day as FCPS superintendent will be Friday, Oct 21.

The next Franklin City School Board meeting will be Thursday, Oct. 20.

At that meeting, “I would hope that we could nominate and accept an interim that would be in charge through the search process until we find and appoint a new superintendent,” Holt said. “So I would imagine that interim would probably be in that role three or four months.”

He later added, “I think probably the meeting two weeks after that we might identify the process that we’re going to use, and I do know this, that we’re going to have some public input sessions, at least one, maybe two during that time before we put out what we’re looking for.”