R2 board votes 4-3 to not be required to hear grievances

Gilchrist: The Board’s Vote Could Deny Due Process

COLUMBIA – Discussion of a complaint policy took center stage at Tuesday’s meeting of the Richland Two School District Board of Trustees.

The two opposing factions on the board appeared to talk past each other about the intent of a change in wording to a rule known as “Policy KE,” which governs complaints made to the school district. It became the center of discussion during the meeting.

Those in favor of the new language argued that it would better direct complaints through the proper channels before they reach the board, while those in favor of the old language argued that it better protected the rights of parents and members of the community.

The board never discussed the content of the policy’s few paragraphs or sought compromise wording; instead, the revision passed with the characteristic 4-3 vote that often occurs when the board considers controversial issues.

The old wording, most recently adopted in 2019, briefly described a process of referring complaints to administration for resolution, making it clear that the complaining person, if not satisfied by the outcome, has a right to appeal the issue to the school board.

The new wording, based on a model policy of the South Carolina School Boards Association, is more verbose and details the order of authorities to contact by those seeking resolution of complaints.

But it then goes on to add the two additional items with which the speakers and board members – and others in the community – took issue:

The first: “Anyone who defames a district staff member and damages a person’s professional reputation, whether before students or any third party, may be subject to legal action brought by the staff member.”

The second: “The board is not obligated to address a complaint. If the board decides to hear the issue, the board’s decision is final. Otherwise, the superintendent’s decision on the issue is final.”

During the meeting’s public comment period, two men spoke against the new wording, requesting that any changes to the policy be rewritten with clearer, more precise wording and eliminate parts that stifle the voice of the public.

“It seems to me what we are doing here is like they are changing the rules of the game. When you change the rules of the game, you stifle collaboration and trust, hence the problem never gets resolved,” said Larry Smalls, a parent who spoke at the meeting.

“This is not a popularity contest sitting in these [school board] seats; you’re dealing with the public. You’re dealing with taxpayers, people’s livelihoods, their kids, and I’d hope you would take it seriously and not just change the rules so you can get commendation from the people you select coming up here.”

Stephen Gilchrist, who is a founding member of the Richland Two Black Parents’ Association and past chairman and current member of the Richland County Planning Commission, as well as chairman of the South Carolina African American Chamber of Commerce and a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, e-mailed concerns about the policy to the board members before the meeting, noting the risks of vague terminology, lack of accountability, and a potential chilling effect on free speech.

“We have a history that has not been too far in our past that prevented folk from being able to have a voice in the political process and the public policy arena, so my hope is that… a district that classifies itself as premier does not in some ways revert back to those days of old,” Gilchirst says.

“I don’t see this any different than the times where black people were asked to count how many jellybeans were in a jar to vote.”

After the vote, he expressed disappointment in approval of a policy that he says will deprive parents and students with grievances of due process.

He says it would be better – and possible – for school board policy to strike a balance that both protects educators from wrongful accusations and protects the right for people to weigh in on issues impacting schools and education in the district.

The policy change was considered in the context of two incidents that occurred at recent school board meetings.

In one case, a parent publicly accused a school administrator of sexually abusing a child, an allegation that the parent later apologized for and declared to be false.

In another case, two men who sometimes express criticism of board actions and policies and board behavior were removed from a school board meeting on Jan. 25 after witnesses say the two men and others were aggressively confronted by Superintendent Baron Davis and his wife, schoolteacher Pamela Davis – an incident that has resulted in multiple complaints against the district.

One of the men, local blogger Gus Philpott, says it was a lengthy struggle to get the details of his ban from district property in writing – and maintains that he did no wrong and violated no policy on the evening in question, a claim that’s backed up by eyewitness accounts.

The other individual who was banned, parent Gary Ginn, has a similar story. Eyewitnesses say he spoke up when a 14-year-old student was verbally attacked by Mrs. Davis. Ginn has expressed criticism of board policies in recent months, but was orderly in expressing that criticism.

Philpott, 83, contends that the real reason for his ban is to silence his online journalism and protect corrupt officials from the public’s right to information about the actions of elected leaders. His blog, which frequently draws attention to school board issues, is often critical of current school system leadership.

Philpott has sought to appeal the decision to the school board under the old wording of the complaint policy, he says – a right that he believes prompted the new wording and a right that was taken away by the new wording approved Tuesday night.

Board Chair Theresa Holmes provided a copy of the document stating that administrative authorities and the school board had decided to uphold Philpott’s ban from school property for the remainder of the school year.

“After reviewing and considering the record in this matter, which included statements from you regarding the January 25 incident, the Board voted to uphold the administration’s decision in this matter, which means that your trespass notice will continue through the end of the 2021-2022 school year,” according to the letter, which is signed by Holmes.

Holmes, who supported the policy change, during the meeting accused board and community members of insincere grandstanding on the issue.

“There [were] two weeks to make changes to this, and the day before there’s all this, because people want to come to a public meeting and make all these statements and these lectures and all that because it’s in public,” Holmes said. “Let’s not play the game up in here tonight because that’s what we’re doing.”

Davis, the superintendent, said the new policy on public complaints is similar to that governing personnel matters. He said that, hypothetically, under the old policy, the board could get stuck spending large amounts of time hearing complaints that have not gone through the proper channels.

“The policy has nothing to do with public participation. There’s a different and separate public participation policy,” Davis said in the meeting.

Board member Lashonda McFadden said the new policy can prevent complaints that do go through proper channels from being appealed to the board and tie up time-sensitive issues in months of bureaucracy, to the detriment of students and parents who need help.

Board member Monica Scott implied that the policy change was a form of hypocrisy.

“We are elected officials. The public and the parents are actually the reason why we are sitting here, and… when many of us were campaigning, we were campaigning because we want to be a voice for the community, we want to be a voice for parents, we want to be a voice for equity. We want to be a voice for integrity… but once we get here, we’re not who we say we want to be,” Scott said.

“I’m going to respond to every e-mail that comes to me, whether it’s a complaint, whether it’s a compliment, whether it’s something that they’re not happy with – it doesn’t matter to me because we’re here because of the public, and I just think that when we’re trying to take away the right of the people who have placed us here, I have an issue with that.”

The new policy passed with the support of Holmes, James Manning, Amelia McKie, and Cheryl Caution-Parker. McFadden, Scott, and Lindsay Agostini voted against it.

Philpott, meanwhile, says he’s looking for a lawyer to help him take his complaint against the district to the next level: the courts.

“My complaint was that I myself was not guilty of their charge and that I did not get a chance to defend myself,” he says, contending that school board policy was applied improperly in his case – and that rules barring speakers from mentioning individuals or job titles are also improper.

“The board says there’s no appeal. No, no, no. There’s always an appeal,” says Philpott, who promises to resume attending school board meetings in July, as soon as his ban expires. “A person can always go to court.”

Gilchrist, meanwhile, says he and the Black Parents’ Association are looking forward to this year’s school board election. He says there are a lot of potential candidates preparing for the start of campaign season – and November’s election promises to be an interesting one.

“I guess that the biggest concern for me is protecting the rights of the citizens of the community who have children in the district, who are taxpayers in the district, and who sometimes do offer constructive criticism,” he says, calling the Jan. 25 incident “unfortunate” and the actions of current leadership “exhausting.”

“I am presently encouraged that… we’re seeing a large segment of our community – black and white, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican – who say enough of this, and that’s encouraging,” he says. “It’s time to get to get some adults in the room who will run the school district on behalf of the children.”

Board members up for re-election are Holmes, McKie, Caution-Parker and Manning.

Looking forward, he says, he’s hopeful that the upcoming elections will result in more civility in school district leadership at Richland Two.

“It’s my hope that as we move toward these elections in November, that parents are paying attention, parents are beginning to get more engaged, and they see this for whatever it is,” Gilchrist said.

“We look to bring on some energy on the school board that cares about governing, that cares about parents, that cares about learning, that cares about the things the parents care about, and not about using taxpayer money, using the district apparatus, and using the power of governing to silence the community.”

Comments

  1. Terrence Cummings says

    Please provide evidence where boards hear unlimited complaints or any reputable agency that has no adjudication process.

    Seriously, this continued nonsense over personalities that this cabal doesn’t like is nothing but mindless mayhem.

  2. Terrence Cummings says

    The Supreme Court of the United States of America can make major decisions about our lives on a vote of 5-4 that will last a lifetime, but not a school board.

    This is mindless mayhem

  3. David says

    It’s worse than the headline says! It was also pointed out that the last line prohibits the board from hearing the complaint until it has gone through the channels and the Superintendent has ruled on it.

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