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Presentation clarifies school board’s role

By Judy Reed

A special presentation at Cedar Springs Public Schools last week Tuesday, April 19, shed some light on what the community should expect from both the Board of Education and the Superintendent, and how the board operates under the open meetings act.

The presentation was given by Scott Morrell, a senior facilitator with the Michigan Association of School Boards (MASB).

Recently there have been complaints from some longtime school staff members about a negative atmosphere at the school brought on by a new administration, and complaints from members of the community regarding board members not responding to concerns. Other staff and community members have voiced their approval of the current administration. People have spoken at board meetings, and sent letters to the Post. Many who are not happy with the way things are going, cite the resignations of four long-time administrators in the last year and a half.

Morrell said he had seen the letters in the Post, both positive and negative, and didn’t think either were helpful. “How many of them were about kids?” he asked.

One person in the audience asked him, “You don’t think those letters were positive, encouraging?”

Morrell said no. “Some were positive but many were hurtful. That’s not looking at what’s best for kids. When we have scores that aren’t where we want, it’s easy to have peripheral stuff going on…Once we start focusing on adult issues, neither side wins.”

Another community member pointed out that some of those issues are affecting the kids. Another said that four administrators had left.

Morrell noted that the administrators won’t share why they left because they are looking for another job. “There are two sides to every story and the truth is usually somewhere in the middle,” he said. “At some point, we’ve got to let some of this stuff go. Change is hard. You could have staff leaving every year as expectations get harder. It’s not that they are bad people. Sometimes it’s just a bad fit.”

He remarked that he is also concerned about where Cedar Springs is headed, and that he wants the district to succeed. “I also have skin in this game. If it fails, I’m also partly responsible. I interact with the board.”

Morrell did a presentation for the board in the fall, and he also does classes that the board members take. He has been a board of education member elsewhere in Michigan, and served on the MASB board of directors. And he does not envy the board members in Cedar Springs. “As an outsider reading those letters, I’m glad that I’m not on this board,” he said.

According to Morrell, the board is in charge of developing policy that governs the district, setting the vision for the district, and adopting the budget. The superintendent is in charge of managing the day-to-day operations of the district, such as hiring staff, managing the budget, implementing the vision and policies that the board adopts, and communication with the board.

The board is also responsible for maintaining two-way communication with staff, students, and members of the community. However, while a board meeting is an open meeting that the public may attend, it is not a public meeting with the community. We are basically watching the board do their business. And while the public may have an opportunity to speak, the board does not respond.

They don’t do dialogue with the public,” explained Morrell. “If they answer one question, and nine others don’t get anything, they would be mad at the board.” He noted that instead, comments are referred to the superintendent to handle.

Morrell explained that the board also cannot do exit interviews. If a staff member is let go, they can appeal to the board under the law. “The board approves resignations and terminations because they are the legal entity, but they may not see why (someone was terminated) unless a grievance reaches them.” He also explained that the board cannot grant a closed session or hearing before the board for a resignation. “Boards don’t do exit interviews because they don’t hire (except for the Superintendent). Their hands are tied—they have to follow policy and the law. They have been advised by their attorney not to do exit interviews.”

Former Athletic Director Autumn Mattson had requested an exit interview with the board after she resigned and was turned down.

Dr. VanDuyn explained that the school has started doing exit interviews with human resources, and that the Superintendent or Asst. Superintendent can sit in when requested. “People can also write or speak to the board, or come to a board meeting and speak during the public comment time and share,” she said.

Morrell noted that when people speak at the meetings, that they shouldn’t be throwing people under the bus. “You (the speaker) are liable, not the district. You could be guilty of libel if it’s not true,” he explained. “And even if it’s true, you still have to be careful, because it could be violating staff members’ rights.”

A resident asked if a former administrator was identified as someone who made a mistake, was that ok? “Some people saw that as an attack on a person,” he said.

Morrell said that was ok. “It’s not an attack on a person, it’s on the process. There will be times it has to come out,” he said.

He also addressed whether letters read at board meetings and requested to go in the minutes should be recorded. “No, because it’s not a board action,” he explained. Morrell said that minutes are not recorded word for word. There is roll call, when the meeting was called to order, motions voted on, etc.

He also covered when the board can go into closed session, how to know when a board is in trouble, and other ins and outs of the system.

But the bottom line was that everyone has their own job to do, and the board of education sets the tone. “As the board goes, so does the district,” said Morrell.

IT works best when everyone swims in their own lane. It takes a community to educate our kids. But we can’t do each other’s jobs. It’s when the district works best. We need to start working collaboratively, working together.”

For a copy of the powerpoint presented at the meeting, visit csredhawks.org.

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