By Lonnie Huhman
A rift has been exposed on the Dexter Community Schools Board of Education.
This break of sorts is apparent in two statements issued after the Aug. 26 DCS school board meeting, which saw disagreements between school board member Barbara Read and the other six members of the board, which is a duly elected group picked to represent the Dexter Community.
The contention at the meeting took place under the agenda item, “other,” where the main point centered on the use of social media by Read and how the rest of the board said it believes its hurting the board’s group dynamic and negatively impacting the district. The school board had previous work sessions where social media policy was discussed.
The meeting was video recorded and has been posted online by a DCS community member, and it’s been viewed by many in the school community.
So in the aftermath over the next few days, Read and the rest of the school board both ended up issuing their own public statements about the rift.
The board’s action against me this week stems from recent issues where I have been in disagreement with the majority, and board members want to intimidate and silence me.
Over the topic of social media use, I’ve been insulted in private, humiliated in public, pressured by a few colleagues in every conceivable way to be silent and “behave myself.” In a final clamp down last Tuesday, a workshop was arranged around the topic of how to curtail social media use by board members. Unable to come up with anything better, the person they brought in revealed the ridiculous argument that my posts on Facebook somehow violate the Open Meetings Act which prohibits deliberation outside of public meetings.
The theory is that if I communicate to the Facebook group, even if it’s a very big and broad-based public group, and it somehow turns out that at least four board members are somewhere within that large Facebook group, that somehow constitutes a “meeting” under the act, and comments on a current topic are “deliberation,” even if I’m not even speaking to other board members in the group and there is no interaction. The woman had no applicable case law or Michigan authority supporting her theory. I indicated that I disagreed with her conclusion and did not alter my interactions with community members, which triggered the board’s attacks on me this week.
Even though the social media guidelines the board was considering were in draft form and still being discussed, I was accused of deliberately “defying” the school board by continuing to communicate with people on social media after they, with no authority to do so–not from the state, not in our bylaws, not in our policies, not in our norms, and unrelated to any recorded board action or even common sense–told me to remove myself from conversations, or else. The insinuation was that I am communicating improperly, which is not true. The other insinuation is that I am weakening the school district by adding more transparency and better communication with shareholders which makes absolutely no sense at all. The stick being wielded is unspecified “laws” from Texas. Members of the Michigan State Board of Education use social media freely themselves as do other elected officials in Michigan while simultaneously complying with the law.
Further, I have been told that it’s not the topics which offend, but the manner of my communication. That cannot possibly be true because Facebook use is not in opposition to either the law or the intent of the open meetings act. And my interactions are open and positive. On the topics below, I have shared information on social media. My opinions on these are either in the minority by my understanding among my colleagues, or of a different opinion from the superintendent.
I have expressed concerns that our high pay to participate fees price some kids out of after school athletics. A campaign goal of mine was to lower the pay to participate fees. I have advocated for transparency by making the district check register public in the same manner as our peer schools of Saline, Ann Arbor, Bloomfield Hills, and many more. I supported having two curriculum delivery methods at our middle school by keeping Traditional alongside Summit Learning. I worked toward parent notification of controversial material to preserve parental authority without impacting the way teachers teach or how administrators do their jobs.
I am a parent and a board member, and that’s okay! Using social media is something nearly all public officials do. It is not a violation of the Michigan Open Meetings Act to communicate with the people who elected you. It makes absolutely no sense that social media use itself would so offend my colleagues. I have read and re-read the Michigan Open Meetings Act because it is always possible to do better. I’m not perfect, and I acknowledge that. But there is nothing in it prohibiting me from interacting with community members either as a parent or as a board member.
I respect my colleagues, and find much more common ground with them than disagreement. I also respect the superintendent and the incredibly hard job he has. Dexter Community Schools Board of Education Trustees, including myself, make it a priority to put children first. That is not to say that we always agree. Robust discussions are part and parcel with board membership.
I am in the minority on a few current topics, and have shared information about them on social media. The board doesn’t like that, and wants to silence my voice.
This is nothing more than the latest in a series of attempts to force me back into compliance and to “behave myself” when I’ve done nothing more than interact with community members as a parent and as an individual board member.
The main topics at issue are financial transparency, pay to participate, parent rights, and using standard parliamentary procedure (not allowing a single board member to orchestrate decisions ahead of meetings or to singlehandedly direct board action without involving the rest of us).
The stick being used is public humiliation, untrue statements about me, and a “Texas” OMA statute (including unpublished court commentary from that state). I remain committed to following Michigan’s Open Meetings Act in full transparency and continuing to improve my understanding of it while serving the students, families, and community of Dexter Schools.
Removing me from my duties is retaliation for interacting with the community on my terms and violating an imaginary “cardinal rule” of pretending to always be in agreement. If I’m really only the second board member to chafe at that in Dick’s forty years, then that’s kind of sad.
I love Dexter Schools, and I look forward to a return to business as usual once they realize that I will not be bullied.
There are a lot of exciting projects and decisions coming up with the start of the new year, and the board and superintendent would be better served by focusing on those than spending their time trying to get me under their thumb. (Which isn’t going to go well anyway and is destructive to the trust families have placed in us. I don’t think that’s what they were elected to spend their time on—keeping me off Facebook.)
The vast majority of the time, I am in solid agreement with my respected colleagues, and I always value the tireless effort put in by the superintendent. My interactions with community members on Facebook are always respectful and positive.
I’m ready to let bygones be bygones and get back to work!!
The other six school board members issued this statement on Thursday:
Dear Dexter Community,
The Board of Education consists of seven elected members but acts as a single governing body. The Board deliberates and acts pursuant to applicable law, including the Open Meetings Act, District policies and bylaws, as well as norms and expectations that have been agreed to and adopted by its members.
The actions of one Board member have undermined these norms and expectations and the Board’s ability to deliberate and guide the District effectively. These actions have eroded trust, disrupted the collaborative culture that our District has cultivated over many years, and has challenged the Board’s and District’s integrity and standing in the eyes of our community.
These actions are not limited to postings on social media, but have included inappropriate comments about and contact with staff, and communication and actions which have undermined the work of the Board and administration. These actions have exposed the Board and District to potential legal liability, have cost the District tens of thousands of dollars in unnecessary legal fees, and have diverted the attention of staff and our ability to serve the children and families of this District.
As a result, the Board has taken the unprecedented action of removing this Board member from its committee assignments. This Board member continues to serve and participate in Board meetings with the power of one vote among seven.
The Board of Education is committed to serving every child and family in the District, and to preserving the collaborative culture and values so important to our community.
Michael Wendorf, Julie Schumaker, Dick Lundy, Mara Greatorex, Ron Darr and Daryl Kipke
Dexter Community Schools Board of Education Members
So those are the sides of the debate. It appears both want what’s best for the school community, so what comes next will be a test of that.