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.)

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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.