Brandywine board meeting ends after failure to adopt agenda

Published 12:43 pm Tuesday, February 28, 2023

NILES — Monday’s Brandywine Board of Education meeting ended only minutes after starting but that didn’t stop community members staying on to express their displeasure with the four new board members elected last November. 

The school board meeting ended prematurely after Superintendent Travis Walker informed board members that a majority of the total seven member board – which would be four members and not just a majority of the five board members present – was needed to act on agenda items. 

The board’s attempt to approve the agenda appeared to prevail on a 3-2 vote before Walker said that the vote was not valid because four people had not voted in the affirmative. He cited a board policy that states that no act shall be valid unless approved by a majority of “the members elected or appointed and serving on the board.” 

“To take any kind of vote, to take any kind of action, you have to have a quorum present, so [having] five people allows us to go as an action item,” Walker said. “But the bylaws state that you have to have a quorum vote, meaning that you have to have four of the elected officials vote yes to pass a motion.”

Payne disagreed with Walker’s interpretation of board policy about the number of votes needed to act when some members are absent. He said he had contacted the board’s attorney who allegedly said Walker was wrong when board policy 0167.1 states, “No act shall be valid unless approved at a meeting of the Board by a majority vote of the members elected or appointed to and serving on the Board and a proper record made of the vote.”

Two votes did take place and failed before the agenda approval vote and the adjourning of the meeting: board members voted 2-3 on a motion to move public comment to the start of the meeting and members voted 2-3 to take an agenda item from the Feb. 13 meeting off the table.  

The item tabled Feb. 13 would have changed the next meeting date from March 13 to March 20 and change the board schedule from having two board meetings each month to having one. With that motion defeated and the meeting adjourned early, the next board meeting will remain on March 13. 

Jessica Crouch and Holly Pomranka voted against passing the agenda but were for  amending the agenda and moving public comment, whereas President Thomas Payne, Vice President Elaine McKee and Trustee Michelleanne McCombs voted to pass the agenda.

Board Secretary Angela Seastrom and Board Treasurer Brian Burge were absent. Payne, McKee, McCombs and Seastrom were elected last November.

Payne said after the meeting he didn’t see the necessity of moving public comment to the start of the meeting. He noted that public comment has traditionally been at the end of board meetings in Brandywine and that with committees established, the board has now gone back to the longheld practice of discussing items at one meeting and acting on them at the next. 

The Open Meetings Act states “a public body has discretion under the OMA when to schedule public comment during the meeting. Thus, scheduling public comment at the beginning or the end of the meeting agenda does not violate the OMA. The public has no right to address the commission during its deliberations on a particular matter.” 

As for resolving the division and conflict that seems to erupt at every board meeting, Payne said he hopes parents and community members will get involved with the committees that have been established. He’s also met with two principals so far and would like to meet with teachers.

“Hopefully we can forge a way to reach common ground,” he said. 

Common ground didn’t seem to be found at Monday’s meeting. The division and conflict present at the last three meetings was again evident although fewer people were in attendance. About 75 people attended the meeting held at the athletic complex next to the middle/high school. At least five held signs and shouted “Resign” to the new board members. 

While several speaking out mentioned the actions taken to establish new committees and suspend the purchase of explicit books for the school libraries, the focus for some seemed to shift to new arguments. People spoke about addressing issues like the shortage of bus drivers, kids coming to school hungry and the morale of staff and students. 

Brandywine alumnae August Garritano called it “cool” that people stuck around for an hour after the short meeting to talk. He said the issue of sexually or violent materials in school libraries is actually something few parents complain about and something the district already has a policy allowing parents to opt out. 

“They are fear mongering about problems that don’t exist,” he said. “The real problems they could be addressing are the shortage of bus drivers and kids coming to school hungry. I don’t think some of their concerns are actually valid and they’re stirring up division in the community.” 

“They’re not showing that they actually want to listen,” he said. “We’ve asked each meeting to bring public comment to the start of the meeting and they’re showing they’re not hearing us so I think the only reasonable thing is to ask them to resign. We’re not going to back down.” 

Similar sentiments were expressed by others. Resident Jen Unger said she was disheartened to see the board’s focus on books and not on getting bus drivers to bring kids to school. Eighth grade student Maddie Reske said any LGBTQ signs in the schools are there to educate kids and added that the focus should be on what the district is doing right. 

Teacher union president Debbie Carew said the teachers she’s surveyed are disheartened about the division and conflict with several thinking about leaving the district or retiring early. “There’s been a drastic change in the morale of the staff,” she said. “… We’re headed for much bigger problems that a few books on a shelf if people leave.” 

Former Superintendent John Jarpe was the first to speak after the meeting adjourned and encouraged others to share their thoughts as well. He had said a month ago that he was “heartsick” over the actions of the new board members and said Monday that he fears the board is micromanaging the district too much.