At least one Clarke County School Board member isn’t sure that other members have been doing their required reading. Quoting from “The Essential School Board Book: Better Governance in the Age of Accountability,” a professional development text book that the School Board has been collectively reading in hopes of improving it governance processes, Stefani Bell, the Board’s student representative, characterized successful school boards as embracing shared leadership roles and fostering open dialogue on issues.
Bell publicly urged the Board to follow the book’s advice going forward by taking a more supportive approach with each other’s viewpoint. Quoting the text Bell said that strong school board leadership will result in a strong school system. “There have been too many 3-2 votes here and that sends the wrong message to the community.” Bell went on to say, “Allowing a minority of citizens to force their views on the School Board wears teachers down. Teachers used their best judgment to select books that they thought were best for students but the minority was able to get the books changed. This may not be sending the best message to our teachers.”
Bell’s message of unity came too late to salvage the night’s Construction Committee meeting however. With the opening bell allegations were traded between Chairperson Robina Bouffault (White Post) and School Board members Jennifer Welliver (Berryville) and Janet Alger (Russell) regarding a motion to appoint Bouffault as the School Board’s “owner’s agent” for overseeing the school construction contract.
Welliver cited past instances where she believed Bouffault acted independently without the Board’s approval and withheld information from the other members of the School Board. “The chairperson is already contacting engineers and construction staff. We’ve gotten bad information from her in the past and she has purposely and blatantly withheld information that caused bad relationships with other government organizations including Berryville. Robina has never acknowledged that she has ever done anything wrong before. I just don’t want to go back there. We need legal advice before we enact anything.” Janet Alger concurred, “Appointing a single board member to oversee the contracts and staff places too much power in the hands of one person. I feel strongly that we need to hire someone to do this.”
Bouffault countered that she was being accused falsely in public to the detriment of the School Board. “You’re fabricating and twisting the truth with partial documentation which is false. It’s not a question of power,” Bouffault said, “We need to keep forward movement if we’re ever going to get the school done.”
Welliver and Alger asserted that Bouffault is ineligible to act as the School Board’s “owner’s agent” because only a school employee can fill such a position according to Virginia’s school board authorization legislation. Bouffault contended that School Board Superintendent Dr. Michael Murphy is the only school employee who could fill the oversight position but that Murphy is too busy with budget matters to spare the additional 20 hours per week that the job will require. Bouffault said that she was the only other person qualified to handle the task.
Dr. Murphy added weight to Welliver’s and Alger’s position citing a case note from Pleasants v. Commonwealth of Virginia. He counseled the Board about the legality of appointing a Board member to oversee construction contracts. “I caution the Board that this may be in violation of case law. This is not a good thing to do,” Murphy warned. In Pleasants v. Commonwealth of Virginia the court defined school employees, such as a school principal or superintendent, as the duly authorized representative of the school board responsible for administration and supervision of the school or schools and the property to which the employee has been assigned.
School Board member Barbara Lee (Millwood) attempted to offer a conciliatory solution that was ultimately rejected by Alger and Welliver. Lee proposed a series of constraints on Bouffault’s operational latitude in the event that the School Board approved her as its owner’s agent. Lee’s motion required that Bouffault notify the School Board in advance of any meetings that are conducted with construction staff, have at least one other School Board member present at all meetings, and post all meeting minutes within 12 hours after completion of a meeting. “Robina is the best choice for this job because she has the time and experience to do it. She’s nit-picky when it comes to contracts and that’s what we need,” Lee said.
Jennifer Welliver rejected Lee’s motion in principle. “It is simply inappropriate and unprecedented for one school district’s representative to wield so much power in the process.”
The School Board went on to approve the motion appointing Bouffault as the Board’s owner-agent in a split decision with Welliver and Alger voting against.
While Student Represenative Bell’s admonition for greater School Board solidarity could not have come at a better time, not everyone present at the meeting agreed with her characterization of the School Board bowing to the demands of a “small minority” of citizens with regard to the school reading list. Vicky Trapnell of Berryville said, “We presented the School Board with a petition of 70 signatures that supported removal of controversial titles from the curriculum. We’re pleased with the result of the process so far and will wait and see if other steps need to happen in the future. We believe that most people in Clarke County would not approve of the material in the texts if they knew what was there.