By STEVEN NALLEY
A discussion on core values at the Starkville School District Board’s retreat Thursday led the board to discuss what the SSD has done and what it may still need to do to resolve integrity questions which arose when the district’s former superintendent resigned in April 2011.
The SSD board came under fire from several citizens and the Starkville Board of Aldermen when it did not immediately disclose results from an April 20, 2011 executive session placing then-superintendent Judy Couey on administrative leave. On April 27, 2011, the board accepted Couey’s resignation after another executive session lasting nearly two and a half hours, and about a month later, Pickett Wilson resigned as SSD board president.
Beth Sewell became interim superintendent for the SSD as it spent months searching for Couey’s replacement, ultimately choosing Lewis Holloway, superintendent of Georgia’s Bulloch County School District, in February. Holloway officially becomes SSD superintendent July 1, but he has worked with the SSD as a consultant in the interim, and he led the discussion on values at the board’s retreat.
“What I’d like to do is talk a few minutes about what (each of) you value as a board member, as a person,” Holloway said. “I’d like to see if we can develop as a consensus.”
Board member Eddie Myles was one of the first to speak. He said if he had to name one key value, it would be honesty.
“Be up-front with me,” Myles said. “That, to me is where we start. If you can be honest with me ... that’s my highest on my agenda.”
Several board members suggested values along similar lines. Jenny Turner said she valued directness, and Lee Brand said he valued integrity.
“It keeps us from having to look over each other’s shoulder and wonder,” Brand said. “If I’m a person of integrity, I’ll tell you the same thing in this boardroom as outside this boardroom. You’ve got to demand from yourself what you desire from everybody else. That goes all the way down to a kid taking a test (and not cheating.)”
Holloway said a key part of building integrity and honesty is understanding the implications a work environment builds.
As an example, he cited a July 2011 scandal which uncovered widespread cheating in the Atlanta Public School system.
“The teachers in Atlanta public schools were told over and over, ‘If you don’t raise your test scores, you’re going to lose your job,’” Holloway said. “When you put that kind of intense pressure on people, you’re going to get a reaction like the cheating scandal. I tell my principals, ‘You can come to me and tell me you messed up, but don’t lie to me about it.’”
After that, board member Eric Heiselt continued the theme by saying he valued trust.
“That’s one thing the board didn’t have when I got on this board,” Heiselt said. “(From) what I see in the school, there’s still mistrust between the teachers and the administrators. When someone repeatedly comes back, and there’s a new story every time I talk with them, I’m done with them.”
Brand said board friction primarily arises when a member wants to take actions that aren’t driven by students’ needs. Heiselt agreed, and he said the only argument he can remember having with Myles was about procedures and not about the students, and they apologized to each other soon afterward. Myles said it was unusual for board members to hold grudges against each other.
“We may disagree ... but then it’s over with,” Myles said. “We’re able to disagree and also come to each other and talk on a serious note. It lets me know that, the people on the board, I can trust them.”
Heiselt then brought the April 2011 controversy into the conversation.
“I think that’s why the issues that happened about a year ago were so hurtful, because all trust was lost, even among board members,” Heiselt said. “Of course, I was brand new, so it really was like (getting hit by) a 2-by-4.”
Holloway then asked, “Is that wound healed among board members?”
Heiselt replied, “There is no one here (now) who was involved in that distrust for me, so I think we’re good.”
Turner said she was not on the board at the time. Rather, she was part of the public, and she said she remembers how limited the board’s transparency was.
“I think the public expects more transparency now,” Turner said.
Holloway then asked the board members what they felt was necessary to heal trust between the SSD and the public. Brand said he felt the healing process started with opening the superintendent selection process to the public.
“(We’re) blessed in that your hiring was an agreement between the board and the community,” Brand said. “(In the future,) we’ve got to address something that’s been swept under the rug before it gets to be a mountain under the carpet.”
Coble said the controversy was a stressful situation, and it’s common for everyone involved in such situations to walk away believing they are in the right.
“To this day, we probably don’t all agree about that, but those were unusual circumstances,” Coble said. “I hope we are never in such a circumstance again.”
Holloway said he believes executive sessions should never be abused, because such abuse destroys trust between a school district and the public. He said values like trust need to be the foundation of all SSD plans.
“There’s a statement by Lewis Carroll,” Holloway said: “If you don’t know where you’re going, it doesn’t matter where you are.”