The message to the Harrisonville School District June 24 was clear: parents and teachers aren’t seeing the transparency that they expect from their school board.
Allegations arose last month that the district’s Board of Education was acting out of line after they sent lengthy surveys to classroom teachers that they say didn’t pose relevant questions about the actual education of students.
Community members say the board’s recent actions call to question the integrity of their leadership.
“This board has a serious credibility problem,” said Chris Bell, a parent and former school board member, at the regular board meeting June 24. “When a body operates in secrecy, our right to self-government is usurped.”
Bell said the board’s image further worsened when a member openly suggested to destroy some of the survey results.
According to the minutes from a May 30 special open meeting held at Dickey Funeral Home, School Board Secretary Susan Brooker noted that she was informed by BOE President Marie Vallee and member Susie Yoder that they intended to shred the original completed surveys.
Brooker warned board members against shredding the documents.
“Any board member who has bothered to give a cursory glance to the Sunshine Law should know that surveys are a public record, and that the destruction of a public record is a criminal act,” Bell added.
The June 24 meeting was moved from Central Office to the high school’s Performing Arts Center to accommodate the expected crowd.
Parents say the survey, formulated by board members, put teachers in a tough spot after they were asked questions that they believe were vague, leading, negative in context and directed at specific district staff members.
One question on the survey asked responders, “If you were writing a negative political ad about the Harrisonville School District, what aspect would you focus on?”
Community members are further irritated that the results of the survey still have not have been fully disclosed to the public.
School board members remain fairly tight-lipped on the issue, and the controversy has already led to at least one school administrator submitting his resignation and many other teachers looking for jobs elsewhere.
“I am so angry at what you’re doing to this school,” said Jason Beavers, a Harrisonville High School assistant principal who submitted his resignation prior to the meeting.
Beavers was one of 10 concerned community members, including parents and teachers within the district, to take the floor at the meeting to make a public comment. Dozens of others gathered to listen.
“Our best and brightest are leaving,” he said. “I’m getting more and more requests from teachers that they want letters of recommendations and it’s infuriating.”
Beavers, who has two children in the district, was shaking in frustration while taking a three-minute turn at the microphone during the audience delegation segment of the meeting.
“I’m getting calls from people who tell me that this district is a joke and that no one is going to come here to educate my son,” Beavers said. “This is a wonderful place, with wonderful people.”
Beavers made a stern call to the board to stop with their personal agendas.
“You’re killing this school district, and it’s heartbreaking,” he said.
After Beavers walked away from the microphone, he received a standing ovation from the audience.
During approval of the meeting’s consent agenda, the board approved the resignations of four high school teachers, including Heather Emokpae, communication arts; Liane Hager, FACS; Jana Coffman, foreign language; and Andrea Eagle, social studies, along with Beavers. Middle school band instructor Matt Willis and Juvenile Center instructor Matt Pyle also resigned.
As other community members took the microphone during the meeting, many reminded board members that a “public office is a public trust” and that they have been hurt by their secretive nature over the last month.
Parent Pat Eddleman even called for three school board members – Jerald Dickey, Marv Cochran and Yoder – to remove themselves from their positions. Several speakers also relayed information that some teachers didn’t attend the meeting because they feared retaliation from the board.
As part of the saga involving the surveys, teachers also recently received a letter signed by Vallee and Superintendent Bryan McDonald about the intent of the survey.
“The survey was intended to be an information-gathering tool,” the letter read. “Specifically, the board felt that, in order to formulate future goals for the district and to make informed decisions concerning the district’s programs, it needed to gather information from the certified classroom teachers. The survey was not intended to gather information about any specific employees nor was it intended to be used as the basis for any personnel decisions.”
Teachers, including Harrisonville Elementary School’s Brenda Foerschler, who has been employed with the district for 25 years, disagrees with the reasoning.
“The timing of the survey didn’t feel like that was your intent,” Foerschler said. “The specific questions in that survey felt like there was a definite agenda.”
After taking a verbal beating from the community, Vallee communicated her process for reviewing the results of the survey.
“We believe this controversy has resulted from misleading information,” she said.
Vallee denied the allegations that the board was using the survey as ammunition to clean house among staff members or to fulfill personal vendettas. She also said they didn’t intend to act in secret, either, but were following advice from the Missouri School Boards Association and the district’s attorney.
The survey’s multiple choice and yes/no questions were tallied and released June 24, however, the written short answer portions of the survey, where most of the criticism has been surrounded, were not distributed to attendees.
“I agree that communication was the big issue and I think that is something that we’ll be working toward improving,” Yoder said.
Other board members acknowledged that they may have a communication problem, but didn’t offer any kind of explanation to why teachers felt threatened or why some resigned.