Here’s the Real Story Behind That School Board/Superintendent “Agreement”

Yesterday I wrote about a document outlining the Knox County Schools Board of Education’s so-called “agreements” with Superintendent Jim McIntyre. Incoming Board member Amber Rountree had been presented with four-page list of rules of conduct at last week’s orientation for new members. She found it problematic and so asked the County Law Director, Richard “Bud” Armstrong, for an opinion. And his opinion was that the document was unenforceable and not binding.

However, according to current school board members and the administration, the document has never been thought of as binding in the first place. Here’s the statement KCS spokesperson Melissa Ogden sent us:

I think it is important to note that the Superintendent does not vote upon or sign the agreement.

The document was developed by the School Board in 2008 in order to help define and guide how School Board members wanted to work collaboratively with each other and with the Superintendent.

The agreement was voted upon and adopted by the Board of Education in 2008 and was revised, voted upon and re-adopted in 2010. Both of these actions were on publicly noticed Board of Education meeting agendas.

Board member Karen Carson, who was on the Board when the first version of the agreement was adopted in 2008, offers more detail.

“It has always just been a working agreement between the Board and the Superintendent,” Carson says. “It’s always been on the retreat agenda. I think it’s clear that it’s not carved in stone, because we’ve revised it every time a new Board has been elected.”

Carson amends this statement to note that there weren’t any revisions in 2012, but that was because the only new Board member was Doug Harris, and he didn’t want to change anything. The minutes of the 2012 Board retreat show the body did discuss the agenda. (The school board’s old minutes might be even more vague than the MPC’s Executive Committee’s—definitely not transparency in action. They appear to have become more detailed in recent years, however.) Agendas from 2008 aren’t online, but agendas from 2010 show the Board discussed the document on the first day of its 2010 retreat. (Agenda here; document here; no minutes are online.) Then, at its October meeting, the Board approved the revised document. (Agenda here; document showing revisions from 2008 here.) The minutes from the meeting don’t note whether anyone voted against it.

This is simply to note that the Board discussed creating the document at a public, sunshined meeting in 2008, and then approved it later that year at a public, sunshined meeting. It discussed it again and made changes to it in a public, sunshined meeting in 2010. And it approved it again in a public, sunshined meeting. The Board discussed it once more in 2012 in a public, sunshined meeting, and this time it decided not to make any changes. And the document was (is? we’ll see?) again scheduled to be on the agenda for the Board’s retreat in late September of this year.

Unlike what I reported yesterday (and as I have since corrected), no one has ever signed anything. Nor, as Mike Donila stated (and has now edited without noting any edits), did “McIntyre and current BOE chair Lynne Fugate han[d] over the agreement for the new folks to sign” during the orientation meeting, at which point “there were some questions about its legality, so a couple of [the new members] asked the Knox County Law Department to look into it.” Incoming member Terry Hill asked if the document would be on the retreat agenda to discuss; she was told it would be. Rountree  alone asked the law department to look into it, although she says Hill and Patti Lou Bounds, the new 7th District Board member, also expressed concerns.

“I just didn’t have a good gut feeling about it,” Rountree says. “I wanted to find out about its validity, so as a new board member, I would be prepared for my job.”

Carson says all the drama could have easily been avoided.

“It’s just sad that it went through the law department rather than asking any of us about it during the meeting. We could have explained it,” Carson says. “The law director has no idea how we formed this agreement.”

According to Carson, the original impetus for the agreement came from a few things. One, there was a new superintendent, and the Board wanted to explicitly spell out its expectations for him to prevent some of the issues that had arisen with the previous superintendent. Two, Black Wednesday had just happened, and the Board wanted to differentiate itself from Commission as much as possible. Three, there had just been rezoning.

“It was a tumultuous time,” Carson says. “There was a desire on our part to make sure we functioned well.”

Her account is backed up by two News Sentinel stories about the 2008 Board retreat. One notes:

Knox County school board members admitted Sunday that at times they have overstepped their boundaries in dealing with issues and vowed to back off and give the district’s chain of command a chance to work.

Being “super managers” of the system, by single-handedly addressing district or constituents’ concerns and bypassing the superintendent or appropriate school staff, is something board members say they need to stop doing, they resolved during the first day of their annual retreat.

“This is not the tradition in Knox County Schools,” board member Dan Murphy said during the board’s eight-hour meeting at the Dancing Bear Lodge. “We’re all guilty” of overstepping boundaries.

“Having us run around as super managers is a lawsuit in the making,” he said. …

Otherwise, “when (a staff member) gets a call from a board member, they sometimes take that as a directive and that puts them in an awkward position,” Superintendent Jim McIntyre said.

Board members would take the same measures when dealing with principals or central office personnel.

A second KNS story goes into further detail—and it also mention that the law director at the time was expected to be involved in drafting the document:

In other matters, board members discussed policing each other to ensure they don’t overstep boundaries when addressing district or constituents’ concerns. They’ve admitted that at times they haven’t funneled the concerns through appropriate school staff members and instead took the matters on themselves.

They agreed to try to be intentional about referring constituents back into the school system. Should board members find themselves taking charge once again, they’ve decided to hold each other accountable.

Methods could include designating one person — likely the board chairwoman — to talk with whichever board member violated the agreement.

Whatever they decide, “you do have to have a safeguard,” said Jim Huge, a former superintendent and full-time consultant who facilitated the retreat.

Kincannon added that the first step is getting the agreement in writing. She then will schedule a meeting with Knox County Law Director Bill Lockett to ensure that the board doesn’t violate the state Open Meetings Act and “there are no communication issues.”

The agreement’s goal is “to improve the function of the board, not to be punitive,” said Karen Carson, the board’s vice chairwoman.

Carson still says the point of the agreement has always been so “that you know what to expect”—the Board from the Superintendent, and vice-versa, both in meetings and outside of them. Fugate, who joined the Board in 2010, says she’s always thought of the document as setting professional standards for the body.

“It’s not a contract. I would characterize it as a protocol,” Fugate says. “What we’re saying is that we’ll be professional, and we’ll support the majority of the Board if it approves something and not work to undermine something after it’s passed. That doesn’t mean we can’t disagree or speak out against something before the vote.”

Fugate and Carson both say they’ve never felt like the agreement has limited what they’ve said to media. And even though the agreement includes this statement—

The Board Chair will serve as the spokesperson for the Board. Members in the minority of a vote, if asked for a comment by media, may: a) decline to comment, b) note that they will support the vote of the Board, c) note that they will support the vote of the Board and articulate the rationale for the approved vote; or d) refer media to the Board Chair for comment

—and as a reporter I personally find it troubling, I have to say that I never would have known this limitation was in place, as almost every Board member to whom I’ve talked over the years has been more than willing to comment on just about everything. (That doesn’t mean that I might like their comments, or that I agree with them, just that I’ve never felt stifled interviewing them—at least no more so than any other politician.)

I say something to this effect to Carson.

“Exactly,” Carson replies. “They’re really just guidelines more than anything else.”

And it’s true that most of the items are fairly innocuous or simply common sense. For example, “The Board will adopt, at the recommendation of the Superintendent, a general methodological framework for the allocation of resources to schools, ” seems to be pretty basic. Carson even has an answer for the “don’t stump the superintendent” clause. (N.B.: She gave me a similar statement yesterday, but her Facebook comment is more cohesive than my notes, so I’m posting it instead.)

Screen Shot 2014-08-29 at 2.41.23 PM

Still, I ask Carson, even if the document was drawn up to help the Board function smoothly, isn’t it possible that it has outlived its usefulness, given the current dysfunction in the system?

“If the Board thinks we should get rid of it, there will be the opportunity to discuss that at the retreat,” Carson says. “Personally I would hope we will have some sort of agreement about how we will work together, whatever it looks like, even if it’s something completely different.”

For her part, Rountree says that despite making the news twice this week, first with the story that McIntyre tried to keep her out of orientation because she’s on maternity leave and then with this, she’s not in a “battle” with the superintendent (or the current Board members).

“In my campaign, I let people know I would be asking questions, and that’s what I’m doing,” Rountree says. “I think that just coming in, I want to make sure there’s a sense of transparency about what I’m doing on the Board. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to ask questions. …

“I teach my kids that, and we want the students in Knox County to be inquisitive and critical thinkers. Shouldn’t the Board model that as well?” Rountree adds.

School Board to Discuss Sullivan’s Column Next Week

In this week’s paper, columnist (and former MP owner) Joe Sullivan has a piece about whether Knox County owes Knox County Schools upwards of $10 million. He first wrote about the issue in May, asserting that the Knox County Trustee’s office has been wrongly collecting a portion of the local option sales tax revenues that go to schools since 1998.

Since then, Sullivan has tried to get a response from the county without much luck. Here’s part of his column:

On May 27, I furnished school board Chair Lynne Fugate and Superintendent Jim McIntyre an opinion by my attorney, Tom McAdams, affirming the validity of all my assertions. Fugate, in turn, furnished the opinion to deputy law director David Sanders, who purports to serve the school board, and asked for a response from the law director, Bud Armstrong.

Three months have passed and no response has been forthcoming. Instead, Armstrong’s only known communication on the matter (of which I’m aware) was in a July 8 memorandum to, of all people, County Commissioner Dave Wright. This is egregious behavior that borders on dereliction of duty on the part of the law director who is obliged to represent all branches of county government co-equally.

In his memorandum, Armstrong claims that the 1965 agreement was “held to be invalid and unenforceable by the Chancery Court in 1995” and subsequently abrogated by a 1998 settlement of that court proceeding.

Nothing could be further from the truth, and Armstrong’s claims are pure poppycock. Indeed, if there’s anything worse than the law director’s improprieties, it’s his incompetence.

I obtained a copy of Armstrong’s memorandum from another county commissioner and furnished it to Fugate and McIntyre as well as McAdams for review. My attorney’s conclusion: “The 1965 agreement remains in full force and effect, enforceable in accordance with its terms.”

To enforce it and seek recovery, the school board will plainly have to retain its own attorney to act on its behalf.  … Patently, a conflict exists with a law director who is much more beholden to County Mayor Tim Burchett and County Commission. Having repeatedly spurned the school board’s request for additional funding, they aren’t about to fork over anything like $10 million without a fight.

However, it now seems that KCS is taking the issue seriously, even if the county isn’t. The agenda for next week’s meeting, posted online last night, includes an item entitled “Discussion and possible action regarding collection of Trustee’s fees.” Included in the agenda packet are the legal opinions from both sides.

Armstrong’s three-page opinion is prefaced with an Aug. 6 letter and apology for not having sent it to Fugate back in July. “[F]or that oversight, I beg your indulgence. I have, maybe mistakenly, assumed that my memo had been transmitted throughout the school system,” he writes. (This seems to be a bad habit of Armstrong’s, as KCS administration had no knowledge  of Wednesday’s legal opinion about the Board’s conduct agreement with the superintendent until I called them yesterday afternoon—McIntyre wasn’t cc’d on the opinion.) 

McAdams’ 12-page opinion discounting Armstrong’s opinion is supplemented by a four-page memorandum and seven-page exhibit expounding on the details of the 1995 lawsuit that the county says negates the 1965 agreement. Not being in the legal field, this reporter has no idea who’s in the right, but McAdams does seem to have enough detail to make a case of it. (If you’re a lawyer who understands all this and has a neutral opinion on the battles between the county and the school board and wants to share any legal thoughts on the matter, do get in touch.)

The Board will discuss all of this at its work session Tuesday at 5 p.m. in the AJ Building. (Yes, work sessions are usually on Mondays, but it’s Labor Day.) If you care about seeing the new members sworn in, then get there at 4:30 p.m. On Wednesday, at its regular meeting in the City County Building, the Board will decide on an action to take, if any, regarding the possibly uncollected fees.

Both meetings should be something—and not just because of this issue. Also on the agenda are three discussion items from Mike McMillian: one to rescind the passage of the KCS Five-Year Plan that passed last month over his opposition; one to discuss the procedure for postponing agenda items per Board members’ personal privilege, which McMillan tried to do with the Five-Year Plan; and one to discuss the Board’s Executive Committee, which currently consists solely of the Chair and McIntyre (and which overruled McMillan’s personal privilege last month). Don’t expect this discussion to stay calm, either.

The Daily Plan-It: Labor Day Edition

Good morning! We’ve got a three-day weekend coming up, so we’ve got four days’ worth of stuff going on. Take a look.

At noon in the visitor center, catch Ancient Warfare perform for WDVX’s Blue Plate Special, along with Bear Medicine. It’s free to attend, as always!

Close out the summer at the Sunsphere starting at 4:30 this afternoon. The Shakin’ the Sphere event will feature a cornhole tournament, some wrestling, and a performance from local band Rosehill. Beers from Cherokee Distributing Company will be on sale (two for $5!), and food trucks will there. It’s free to attend!

Comedian Lavell Crawford, whom you might know from his work on Breaking Bad, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Workaholics, and Chelsea Lately, will perform his standup routine at Sidesplitters Comedy Club at 7:45 and 10:30 tonight. Tickets are $32. Buy them here. Crawford will perform again on Saturday.

Chamomile and Whiskey will perform at the Preservation Pub at 10 p.m., along with locals Ebony Eyes, and Earth Quaker. Cover’s $5. 21+ only.

Knoxville indie rock kings the Royal Bangs will perform at Barley’s Taproom and Pizzeria at 10 p.m. No cover!

Early risers and yoga enthusiasts: Ijams will have a SUP yoga class. Yes, that’s yoga on a stand-up paddle board. No experience necessary! It’s $20 to participate. More info here.

The Picky Chick Consignment event will kick off its third day at the Knoxville Expo Center at 9 a.m. It’s $5 at the door to go shop for reduced-price clothing for fall and winter for the kiddos. More info here.

Boomsday, that beloved free-for-all by the river and fireworks spectacle kicks off at 3 p.m. on Neyland Drive. And yes, it’s FREE to go walk around down there and stake out a spot to watch the fireworks. If you paid $20 earlier in the year, you’ve now got tickets to an after-show concert from Knoxville native Rodney Atkins. We’ve got all the details here, if you need more info.

If you don’t want to/didn’t buy the $20 tickets, you’ve got a couple options for post-Boomsday entertainment. Shark Week will perform at Scruffy City Hall, along with Pennicillin Baby and Johnny Astro and the Big Bang. The show starts at 10 p.m. 21+ only.

Also at 10, catch local indie stalwarts Gamenight, their friends Madre, and Marina Orchestra perform at the Pilot Light. Cover’s $5. 18+ only.

Spend the day outside or watching the football game, and then head over to the Concourse to catch Psychostick perform with One-Eyed Doll, Wild Throne, and Belfast 6 Pack. The show starts at 7 p.m. Tickets are $7-$10. 18+ only. More info here.

The Preservation Pub’s Upstairs Underground Standup Comedy Show starts at 8 p.m. It’s free to attend! Go get your giggle on! 21+ only.

The Brockefellers will play at Barley’s at 10 p.m. Have a beer while you’re there.

The Labor Day Sunflower Project gets started at 9 a.m. More details here. It’s free to attend!

The Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church is scheduled to have a gentle yoga and meditation class at 5:30 p.m. Call (865) 577-2021 or email to make sure it’s still on.

WDVX’s Tennessee Shines show will feature Dixieghost live at the visitor center at 7 p.m. Tickets are $10 at the door (which opens at 6). You can also tune in!

The Oak Ridge Community Band’s Labor Day concert also starts at 7 p.m. at Alvin K. Bissell Park. It’s free to attend! More info here.

Uber Is Finally in Knoxville!

Exciting news, all you potential drunk drivers—now you have another option besides waiting for a cab. UberX is hitting Knoxville as of TODAY, like right now. And it’s free all weekend!

Here’s the email the company sent out earlier:

uber emailScreen Shot 2014-08-28 at 2.11.17 PM

UberX not full-fledged Uber with the town cars and stuff. It’s a driver driving his or her own car—this makes it a lot cheaper than the town cars, but you also might be crammed into the back of someone’s (very clean) Prius. But is being crammed into a backseat a hell of a lot better than a DUI or a car wreck? Absolutely.

Of course, if you don’t have a smartphone and you don’t have a credit or debit card to link to Uber, you’re still limited to cabs. But between this and the rental bikes downtown, we have to say it’s a very good week for Knoxvillians who don’t have cars—or who are too drunk to drive them safely.

Battle Between McIntyre and Rountree Gets Real

Yesterday we wrote about how Knox County Schools Superintendent Jim McIntyre had tried to stop incoming Board of Education member Amber Rountree from attending an orientation because she’s using her sick days as maternity leave. The county law department told her she was in the clear, she attended the meeting, and she told us, “All’s well that end’s well.”

At the time, we noted that Rountree had also asked the law department about the legality of McIntyre’s meeting restrictions for the Teacher Advisory Council. But it turns out that’s not all she has asked about. As Mike Donila reports over on his blog, Rountree asked the county lawyers for an opinion on a 2010 document entitled, “Agreements Between the Board of Education and Superintendent”—a four-page memo that new Board members are supposed to sign regulating their conduct is a policy ostensibly regulating Board members’ conduct.*

You can read the entire document here— and holy Mary mother of Jesus, is it a piece of work. For instance, any board member who votes against an agenda item, if asked for comment by the media, is instructed to “a) decline to comment, b) note that they will support the vote of the Board, c) note that they will support the vote of the Board and articulate the rationale for the approved vote; or d) refer media to the Board Chair for comment.” Also, Board members are told to “refrain from any questions or statements intended solely to embarrass or stump staff or the Superintendent.” We’re speechless.

And as you might think, if you have any kind of basic concept of constitutional rights, these items—and they are far from all of them—aren’t exactly legal. Law Director Richard Armstrong writes, “At its base, these items limit Board Members’ freedom of speech, as well as their responsibility to speak openly and freely on all school issues. … It goes without elucidation that free, open and vigorous debate in meeting, forums, the press and before the public in general should be the norm for the members of any deliberative body. Any restriction on such is inimical to the concept of representative government.” SMACKED. DOWN.

We’ve called McIntyre’s office for comment, and we’ve left messages for several Board members, including Rountree. We’ll update when we’ve got more.

*UPDATE: Board members Karen Carson and Lynne Fugate say the “agreements” are basically a memorandum of understanding, not a signed contract, and that no one actually signs off on anything. Rountree confirms she was not asked to sign the document in the orientation meeting, unlike how Donila characterized it. We’re still waiting on comment from McIntyre, and we’ll have a much more nuanced look at everything posted first thing tomorrow.

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