By Sally Absher

Board of Education members and the public in attendance at last Monday’s Work Session meeting expected to breeze through the first eight items of the Board Agenda, with the majority of the meeting devoted to the Emerald Charter School application and the Revised FY 2015 Budget. They were quickly derailed by a discussion on Board Policies, however.

Karen Carson brought up an existing (1995, revised 2011) policy BCBI, “Appeals to and Appearances Before the Board.”  She said the Board needs a policy so that “we don’t have to hear about a problem when an employee speaks before the board in a 5 minute scenario, or on various social media… that should have been addressed through the proper chain of command.”  Policy BCBI addresses appeals, appearances before the board, and complaints.

The policy says that an employee may come before the board when they have exhausted the normal chain of command. She wants teachers and other KCS employees to put their concerns in writing, and follow the chain of command, so that if it breaks down, the board will know where and be able to address it at that point.

Carson added, “If an item is on the agenda, any person can speak to that item. Employees have every right to speak to items on an agenda.”

Several teachers who were at the Work Session meeting said this sounds like an attempt to censor teachers from speaking during Public Forum at board meetings. Carson is one of several board members who have expressed their impatience with teachers. Several months ago one board member said “We’re so glad the teachers have spoken up, but we’ve heard you now.”

Lynn Fugate said, “This is our existing policy, and as Chair, I didn’t enforce this last fall, because we were in a heated moment, and I thought as a goodwill gesture and a matter of good faith with our educators, we wouldn’t enforce this. I think what we are saying is, we need to be enforcing our policies. These are OUR board meetings.” She later attempted to try out her new policy enforcement on recently resigned teacher Lynne Schneider when she came to the podium to speak during public forum.  Ms. Schneider’s comments were directly related to the budget and Charter Schools, both of which were on the agenda.

Doug Harris further raised concern by using the example of SAT-10 testing. He said instead of individual teachers spending 5 minutes at public forums, “it would have been more helpful if teachers got together with their principals, and the principals went to Dr. McIntyre, saying, ‘A whole lot of teachers want to address the board on this topic’ and then put together a presentation so we can ask them questions and have a dialogue.”

“Then it would be on our agenda so we would be able to get information from (Dr. McIntyre) and the administration, and come up with conclusions before the meeting, and be able to ask questions of the teachers.”

A teacher reported on the SPEAK page that she had emailed all the BOE members to express her concerns about this policy. She said she received replies from Mrs. Kincannon and Mrs. Carson. “Kincannon was NOT happy about the attempt to prevent teachers from talking about issues not on the agenda. She will not support this. Carson defended her views.”

Board member-elect Amber Rountree said “it would be difficult for teachers to address concerns in a group presentation format…many of the concerned teachers don’t know each other and work at different schools.”

She added, “While this may be a current policy, I don’t believe it could be enforced based on a recent resolution from Amy Broyles.” She was referring to Ordinance 14-2-101, passed by the Commission on March 24, 2014. This ordinance amends the Knox County 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. So it would appear that we now have a conflict between Board policy and a Knox County ordinance.

During the Wednesday Regular Board meeting, further discussion and action on this agenda item was deferred to July. Lauren Hopson addressed the issue during public forum, saying, “It seems to me that the board still feels like teachers who have addressed the board have not tried to take their concerns up the chain of command… But when years of trying this method got us nowhere, this is our only recourse.  Just like a tree that falls in a forest, a teacher who expresses a concern without a board member to hear it, doesn’t make at sound at all.”