BY BENJAMIN J. GOHS & CHRIS FAULKNOR
Boyne City Public Schools Board of Education member Bob South has made some serious allegations against his own board.
South brought his concerns to the Boyne City Gazette, which has been investigating the matter for several weeks.
“As I ponder moving forward in running for an open board position, I want to be certain that my time is well spent and that there are no barriers to providing what is best for not just my three children but for all children in the Boyne City School system,” South wrote in a statement to the Boyne City Gazette. He has been a member of the board since October 2015, when the death of a long-time board member left a vacancy.
South’s concerns include the following:
1. South believes a change to the board’s conflict of interest policy was initiated for the purpose of singling him out because he is also a wrestling coach.
“On June 8, 2016, the board was provided a packet for the June 13, 2016 meeting in which many items were to be discussed, including recommendations for policy changes,” South stated in a memo to the Boyne City Gazette.
“Upon reading these changes, I immediately expressed concern over one of the proposed changes and e-mailed board president Ken Schrader for clarification…. We discussed the matter and he agreed to allow me to address the issue at the June 13 meeting.”
According to South, at the June 13 meeting, the school board read recommendations made by their policy committee.
“Among those policies that had been presented for changes was one within the conflict of interest section regarding a board member not being allowed to serve as a volunteer coach (or) supervisor of a student extracurricular activity,” South wrote…. “Upon voicing my concern over this potential change of policy, I was told that I could take it upon myself to write a new policy and present it as an option for the board.”
In a June 17 e-mail to Schrader, South expressed serious concerns with the proposed policy change.
“I feel as though changing the language will have detrimental effects to the school district and its students by limiting the potential number of qualified, vetted, and willing volunteers—those who have demonstrated themselves to be productive and beneficial to their respective programs,” South wrote. “I was forced to ask myself why the change was even proposed. It did not seem to be an issue which needed to be addressed. Rather, it seemed to have a very specific targeted affect on … me.”
2. South contends discussions and decisions, which should be ocurring in board meetings open to the public and in front of the full board, seem to sometimes be taking place outside of regular meetings.
“I often feel as though there are behind-the-scenes discussions and planning that take place between regular meetings,” South stated in his June 17 e-mail to Schrader. “If this is due to a lack of involvement on my part, shame on me. But, I don’t think this is the case. I often feel as though I am blindsided by some of the topics and decisions I am asked to make.”
He added, “And, it feels as though others on the board have advance knowledge and opportunity to discuss.”
3. South claimed school board members who have concerns with policies are instructed by the board leadership to write their own policy and present it to the board.
“It was left the other evening that, if I had a problem with the wording of the policy, that it was incumbent upon me to propose different wording,” South stated in the aforementioned June 17 e-mail. “I reject that notion. The policy committee is charged with that task, and they should continue in that capacity. The onus should not fall upon me or any single board member, solely, to craft a policy to be presented to the board for consideration.”
4. He also accused the school board president of promising to instruct other board members in how they should vote on a matter prior to a school board meeting on at least one occassion.
“Following the meeting (June 13) I called superintendent Peter Moss as well as Ken Schrader…. Ken made assurances to me that he ‘would talk to’ the individuals involved and make sure there weren’t enough vote(s) to pass the change in policy,” South stated. “At the June 27, 2016, board meeting, Ken pulled me aside at the conclusion of the meeting to again reassure me that he had spoken with other board members and that the policy concern I had voiced would not be an issue.”
5. South is also concerned with selective enforcement of conflict of interest policies since the Boyne City School Board’s treasurer is related to someone on the school system’s administration team.
The board’s conflict of interest policy stated, “A member of the board is presumed to have a conflict of interest if the member or his/her family member has a financial interest, or a competing financial interest, in the contract or other financial transaction or is an employee of the school district.”
South asked Schrader in the June 17 e-mail why the treasurer’s apparent conflict of interest was being allowed.
Boyne City Public Schools Board of Education President Ken Schrader answered South’s charges in addition to other questions from the Boyne City Gazette.
According to Schrader, it was Boyne City Public Schools Board of Education member Zareena Koch who initiated the policy change.
“Zareena had voiced a concern about what she felt was a policy that needed to be changed,” Schrader told the Gazette. “She brought it before the policy committee and a policy change was proposed to the whole board.”
Koch, who spoke to the Boyne City Gazette on July 21, said she requested the change because she felt it was a “hazy policy.”
“It was not clear as to what you could and couldn’t do as a volunteer,” she said. “And, even though we had kind of loose rules in our heads about it, it’s good to put those on paper—especially with so many members getting reelected this year or potentially new members coming in.”
Koch said she had no intention of singling out South but said it could be an issue if someone both serves on the board and has significant interest in something—like a sports program—they may have to vote on in the future.
When asked if she has seen school board business discussed outside of public meetings, Koch said “no.”
“We typically try to discuss it in committee,” she said. “And, when that occurs, those are all—every single one of them—open session, and the public is always welcome.”
Koch said it is disheartening to hold board meetings and regularly see few to no members of the public in attendance.
Schrader said is it standard board procedure for board members who have issues with policy to craft their own replacement and present it to the board.
Boyne City Public Schools Superintendent Patrick Little told the Gazette, on Friday July 22, that the school board’s policy committee meets at least twice per year to review policy changes suggested by NEOLA (whose mission is stated as helping, “school leaders set direction through policy and address the policy implications and mandates of the ever-evolving laws and regulations from all levels of government.”)
This ensures the school system will remain in compliance with state and federal law and any recent court rulings.
“The policy committee also can review existing policy based on recent local events,” Little stated. “When the policy committee reviews and suggests policy revision, the recommendation is communicated to the board as a whole. If a board member is not on the policy committee, they can take policy change suggestions to the committee and work with the committee on the ideas for change.”
He added, “There are two public readings of the policies, and discussion is a normal part of the process.”
When asked if school board matters are discussed among school board members outside of meetings, Schrader responded, “Yes. But, I encourage the board members not to do so among more than two other members.”
Schrader said there aren’t a lot of outside conversations.
“Any pertinent discussions are done in a public meeting,” he stated. “Most of what could be called ‘discussions’ is members providing information to other members prior to a meeting.”
When asked if board members ever agreed to make decisions on school board matters outside of meetings, only to vote on them as a matter of technicality at the public meeting, Schrader said “No.”
Little noted that the Board of Education may only legally take action at an official school board meeting that has a quorum of members present.
“Committee meetings have three official members but are open to the public,” he stated. “Discussion occurs in both committee and board meetings.”
Little said board members as individuals have the freedom of speech afforded to all citizens.
“They may discuss in private or public any matter that is not confidential,” he stated. “When they come together as a committee, they may speak freely and make recommendations as a committee through consensus or a vote of the committee.”
Little added, “At no time can the board make a decision about official school business or deliberate outside of a board meeting.”
When asked if he has ever instructed other board members on how they should vote, Schrader responded thusly:
“The school board president does not have that kind of power,” he stated. “First of all, the seven members are all individuals and I don’t think anyone of them can be ‘instructed’ or otherwise be forced to vote a certain way. Secondly, the board president only has the ability to set the agenda, with the superintendent, which can be changed by any member during the meeting; begin and end the meetings; attempt to keep discussions on topic; and is the spokesperson for the board; and, finally, has the authority to contact the school attorney.”
Conflict of interest?
When asked about the apparent violation of the conflict of interest policy with the board treasurer, Schrader noted that the policy concerning South is a different policy and said, “There might be. We are continuing to review it.”
He added, “Depending on the results of the above, we will follow state law, or a discussion will take place on what our policy will be.”
Little said Boyne City Public Schools Board of Education Treasurer Ross McLane’s son Nic McLane will play a role this school year as the director of the Morgan-Shaw school.
“Ross McLane has discussed this with me and we are both cognizant … possible decisions directly impact(ing) his son’s financial situation require him to abstain from voting or discussion,” stated Little. “The policy does not preclude him from more general conversations regarding district budget or programming.”
When asked if South will be prohibited from coaching next year, Schrader said “no.”
“No one is prevented from being a coach,” he stated. “Under the existing policy, and maybe state law, a board member cannot be paid for any position in the school system, except board pay, and be on the board. Under the proposed policy change, no board member can be in a position for the school system that involves being a ‘head coach’ or position of authority over an entire program paid or unpaid.”
Little said the proposed change to the conflict of interest policy was removed from the July board meeting to give the board more time to discuss the matter.
“This was my suggestion to the board,” Little stated. “The board will revisit the policy with some suggested revisions at the August board meeting.”
Schrader closed by saying, “We have a very good board with members from varying differences and beliefs. I never encourage members to act on personnel dislikes but to act on personal beliefs which include what you feel is right for the school system as a whole.”