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Board of Education Won’t Budge on Policy Limiting Access to Public Forum

By Sally Absher

On Monday, the Board of Education spent over 40 minutes debating the dubious merits of Board Policy BCBI, “Appeals to and Appearances Before the Board.” The policy says that an employee may come before the board after they have exhausted the normal chain of command.

The board says they want teachers and other KCS employees to put their concerns in writing, and document each step up the chain of command, so that if the process breaks down, they will know where the break down occurred and be able to address it at that point.

Action on this item was tabled last month to allow board members time to propose revisions or amendments. No amendments were brought to the work session by board members, so Chairwoman Lynne Fugate said she anticipated “doing nothing” at Wednesday’s meeting. “It is our policy, and we will enforce it.”

Critics say that the BOE wants to keep concerns about KCS out of the public eye. Board member Karen Carson worried that “bringing concerns up, on TV, is not good for public education” But bringing issues before the public, where they become part of public record, gives teachers, parents, and citizens a way to hold the board, and the administration, accountable.

At Wednesday’s regular meeting, Farragut Middle teacher Mark Taylor spoke on the agenda item, saying, “Very few teachers have spoken in public forum that have not tried to resolve their issues and concerns through the proper channels.”

Taylor should know. He teaches mostly advanced 8th grade students, who take 9th grade physical science. For several years he received artificially low evaluations because students taking 9th grade physical science are taught a different curriculum, which is not aligned to the 8th grade TCAP test.

This resulted in poor TVAAS scores for Taylor, who otherwise had excellent evaluations. He brought his concerns to the Board earlier this year after his school administration suggested that he should start worrying more about himself than his students.

Educator Shelia Earl told the Board that after 14 years as an award winning teacher and nine as an assistant principal, Dr. McIntyre demoted her to a teaching position. She has been trying to find out why.

The only response she received from the chain of command was that “administrators serve at the pleasure of the Superintendent.” The demotion cost her the APEX bonus, and a 25% cut in salary.

She said, “Mrs. Fugate has the series of emails I sent to Dr. McIntyre, Dr. Sims, and others,” adding that she was required to provide them as evidence so that she would be allowed to speak in public forum.

She added, “What the chair does not know is that I never received a reply until my sister, unbeknownst to me, contacted the Knox County Ethics Board. I believe this is the only reason I finally received a response from the Superintendent.”

Where is the transparency? When issues are documented in writing, it becomes part of the employee’s permanent employment record. But the written communication is never seen by the public.

Mark Taylor quoted Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who said, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” He added “This policy is not transparent. It stifles free speech.”

Taylor said “the Board of Education, like all other elected governing bodies, should always be transparent, always allow debate, and most importantly always follow the law,” and suggested this board policy may be in violation of the law.

He cited County Commission Ordinance O-14-2-101, approved in March of this year, which amends Knox County Code to add language relative to an employee’s right to speak openly and freely regarding any issue involving Knox County Government, its agencies, boards or its elected or appointed officials so long as such speech does not violate the laws of slander and libel.

Taylor challenged the Board to change their policy on Public Forum to allow full transparency. He said they should allow people to speak freely and have the courage to respond to them in Public Forum so their comments are on the record.

First District Gloria Deathridge added that this policy is not just for teachers, but that the policy is for parents and citizens as well. “They still have to go through certain procedures, or we would like them to, in order to get it solved at the lowest level.”

Chairman Fugate asked BOE attorney David Sanders to check on the legality of the board policy.

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