By Sally Absher

There is no news like old news, as evidenced by a September 9 article in the Knoxville News Sentinel, “School Board to Enforce Policy Addressing Members.”

BOE Policy BCBI, “Appeals to and Appearances Before the Board,” was discussed at several BOE meetings over the summer, as reported in a Focus article on July 7.

Back in June, the Board said 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.

Fifth District BOE member Karen Carson, who first brought the policy up, said the issue is “teacher/employee concerns coming before the board without going through the proper chain of command.” Action on the policy was tabled until July.

The KNS article states that “At those meetings, teachers, students, and parents consistently showed up and shared their concerns with board members on everything from standardized testing to the implementation of Common Core standards after a YouTube video of Halls Elementary teacher Lauren Hopson addressing the board in October went viral.”

It isn’t about teacher concerns not being addressed. The Focus reported previously Carson’s comment, “bringing concerns up, on TV, is not good for public education.” So it isn’t about teacher concerns not being addressed. It is about the legitimate concerns of teachers – and parents and students as well – being recorded and made public on video.

If a teacher raises a concern on a matter relating to the education of our children or governance of the school system in a private meeting with a principal and no one hears it, then it didn’t happen. No one complained, nothing to see here, move along folks…

If that same teacher raises a concern in a public forum, with 300 people in the audience and many more watching on TV at home, the word starts to get out that all is not well in our school system. Things will only be fixed when people know they are broken.

When no amendments or changes were offered at the July Work Session, Chairwoman Lynne Fugate said, “It’s our policy. We will enforce it.”

But at the July regular BOE meeting, Public Forum speaker Mark Taylor raised the issue of whether the policy violates County Commission Ordinance O-14-2-101, approved in March of this year.

This ordinance 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.

Fugate asked the Law Director’s office to check on the legality of the policy.

In his written opinion on the policy (July 16, 2014), Knox County Law Director Bud Armstrong said that the BOE policy is not in conflict with Ordinance O-14-2-101. He adds that the School Board is not required to have open public forums at its meetings.

In Armstrong’s opinion, “Board Policy BCBI, on its face, is not in conflict with Ordinance O-14-2-101. However, the application of certain sections of BCBI to limit public discourse on policy issues is suspect.”

He explains, “Even without the Ordinance, the Knox County Government is prohibited from retaliating against its employees for exercising their rights to freely express themselves regarding public policy issues.”

Channeling Br’er Rabbit, Armstrong concludes that “If the members desire to cut off public debate about issues surrounding the education of the children of Knox County, they can certainly do so. However, fundamental fairness requires that they must do so across the board for all citizens and parents, not just teachers. Board members are not required to have a public forum and indeed, they can change their procedural rules to totally eliminate citizen comment at public meetings by majority vote.”

A major revision of Policy BCBI, titled simply “Public Forum at Board of Education Meetings” was presented at the August 4 Work Session.

The proposed revision begins by declaring, “The Board of Education welcomes public input on any matter relating to the education of our children and governance of the school system,” and explains the procedure to be followed in voting and non-voting meetings.

At the end of the revised policy is a section titled “Appeals to the School Board.” This section states, “The Board requires that all administrative and personnel matters be settled at the lowest possible level. Such matters will be heard by the Board of Education pursuant to established appeals processes.”

After a lengthy discussion with no consensus, Chair Fugate suggested that the policy be discussed further at the Board retreat, scheduled for later this week (September 19-20).

We trust the new BOE members will have some strong opinions on this, and many other issues, including reports of KCS administrators contacting teachers via Facebook personal message, instead of utilizing the KCS email system.

This practice raises several concerns, including whether school administrators conducting school business, via their personal FB pages while connected to the KCS network, creates an open records issue. It also is creepy to think that KCS Central Office is stalking employees on their FB pages after hours, which is when most of the communications have been sent.