BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
Emotion and division between members of the Greene County Board of Education on Thursday created one of the most tense and contentious meetings of the board yet.
Divided votes and mistrust between members culminated in a 4-0 vote on a resolution presented by Chairman Roger Jones that called for the board to state their confidence in the ability of Director of Schools Dr. Vicki Kirk.
All seven members of the board were present, but members Kathy Austin and Deborah Johnson voted only that they were "present" while board member Kathy Crawford abstained.
The remaining four members, including Jones, voted yes, effectively approving the resolution by the necessary majority.
The vote was made before a standing-room-only audience including mostly teachers and administrators, who erupted into cheers and applause before giving Kirk a standing ovation.
Kirk sat quietly throughout the tense discussion and covered her face and bowed her head when the room erupted in applause.
DIRECTOR OF SCHOOLS
The resolution stated that the board is confident in her ability to "carry out all administrative duties assigned to her by the Greene County Board of Education as set forth in Tennessee Code Annotated and commensurate Board Policy."
The resolution cites Kirk's positive performance reviews for the past two years and the system's "making progress toward meeting the goals that have been established."
Austin opened discussion on the resolution by questioning its purpose. She noted that Kirk's annual board evaluation occurs in a month.
Jones replied that the resolution was intended "just to show Dr. Kirk that the board stands behind her in all things that we have before us right now."
"Our evaluation will show our confidence in her. Or not," Austin replied.
Johnson agreed that she did not understand the purpose of the resolution and said that it was subjective and "has no merit," whereas the scheduled evaluation would feature qualitative analysis.
"This would also be a good time to evaluate the school board chairman, who has a lot of responsibility and whose position is important to the board," Johnson said.
"This would also be a good time to evaluate the school board secretary [Melissa Batson]."
Following the vote, board member Tommy Cobble defended Jones as having received the board's confidence when he was elected as chairman.
Board member Nathan Brown also commented, thanking Kirk and the Central Office staff for their hard work.
Brown's comment also referenced a division exhibited between the board in other votes of the night (Please see related article on Page A-1), and during discussion in a tense school board workshop held prior to the formal board meeting.
"I just hope that, going forward, we can show the employees, everyone, the respect like we want ourselves to be treated," he said. "As a school board, all of us can work together. I know we can do that."
Dozens of students were recognized for recent accomplishments, several special presentations were made concerning new curriculum development, and concerning extensive e-rate grant monies gained for advancing the system's Internet technology into wireless.
Instead of walking away Thursday evening with these strides as the focus of discussion, those who stayed for the full meeting or witnessed the workshop held prior to the meeting were talking about only one thing - apparently growing animosities within the board itself.
(Please see Saturday's Greeneville Sun for coverage of the workshop and other issues.)
Among the tense topics dealt with in the board meeting on Thursday was a proposal to change the board's committees to include only four "standing committees" -- policy, bid, curriculum, and long-range planning -- on each of which three board members will serve.
Previously, all committees of the board acted as standing committees, but rarely met.
Under the proposed new policy, other committees, such as the building, safe schools and insurance committees, would be developed as needed and disbanded after work is completed.
Jones would appoint members to the committees, but all board members would be invited to attend any committee meetings.
Board members would also continue to attend certain administrative committees.
The board voted 5-2 in favor of this change, with Austin and Johnson opposed.
The committee revisions were a topic of heavy debate during two recent board workshops and had been scheduled for continued discussion at the workshop held just prior to Thursday's meeting.
In making the board agenda, however, Kirk and Jones added this resolution to appear during the board meeting as well, an action which prompted strong objections from Austin and Johnson.
Austin raised her objections earlier in the week, resulting in a series of e-mails explaining Austin's objections, Jones's defense and Kirk's explanation.
"I do think it was inappropriate, the way it was handled," Austin said during the meeting in objecting to the committee policy proposal being added to the formal agenda.
She also questioned who had decided to bring the matter to the board and whether there had been a violation of the state Open Meetings (Sunshine) Law in other board members' making that decision outside a public meeting.
Jones defended the decision to keep the resolution on the agenda, noting that it has been discussed during two prior meetings and will have to appear as policy before the board for two additional readings after the concept's approval Thursday.
During the workshop prior to the board meeting, he also said that several members of the board had told him since their last meeting that the matter should move ahead to Thursday's agenda.
"You can't do that," Austin said in regard to the Sunshine Law. "I know you think you can, but you can't."
"Don't go there, Ms. Austin. We'll talk about the many years that you and another board member met over here and made all the decisions for this board".
"I don't have a clue what you're talking about," she said. "Enlighten me! You can't make an accusation and not have proof."
Jones then said that Austin used to meet with a past board chairman and past director in the director's office prior to meetings.
"That's a lie!" she said. "I want proof. You're slandering me, and I want proof."
WRITTEN APOLOGY IS READ
At the close of the board's formal meeting, Jones read from a written apology, saying:
"I want to apologize to the board and those that attended during the workshop for my moment of losing my focus, but not for my passion and my loyalty to the students and the staff of this system.
"Sometimes the actions of others controls reaction, and that should not happen.
"I need to always remember that, while some just do not understand, others understand -- they just have other priorities. I apologize."
Austin said in an interview after the meeting that she plans to contact an attorney in regard to Jones's statements.
Austin also explained during the meeting that she feels she should have had input into the writing of the committee policy, and questioned who wrote it.
"I did say in my e-mail today that I wrote it," Kirk replied. "I thought we were going to discuss it today but that it would then be okay to vote on it today."
"I didn't know the director of schools could write policy," Johnson replied.
Kirk confirmed that her duty is to write policy and bring it to the board for approval and edits.
"If not, I've been doing it wrong for a long time," she added.
Brown also confirmed that it had been his understanding that the board would continue discussing committee options at the workshop before the meeting, but that the matter would also be on Thursday's agenda.
"I can't let Dr. Kirk take the blame for the whole thing because that was my understanding, too," Brown said.
This prompted further discussion of the Sunshine Law and the board's need to keep official minutes during not only board meetings but also committee meetings and workshops.
Kirk confirmed that this is not the board's current practice, but said during the workshop that she would be glad to do so to "help me defend myself."
Johnson also expressed a need to defend herself in asking that all board members be able to serve in a voting capacity, saying that Roberts Rules of Order encourage full board participation, rather than prohibiting it as Jones had suggested in an earlier workshop.
She emphasized the importance of all members' ability to vote on what comes before the board, saying, "If it wasn't, members of the board wouldn't argue so vehemently to exclude some of us."
During the workshop prior to the board meeting, Austin chided other board members for not being more welcoming and respectful to Johnson, saying that she has been disappointed in the board's recent behavior.
Other members objected, saying that they did not agree that any had been disrespectful, but also noted moments they felt Johnson had been disrespectful to members of the Central Office staff.
This division and tension continued through the close of the meeting.