The issue of board governance appeared to be a source of conflict for Oxford school officials at a May 4 regular meeting.
The item had been added to the agenda by Trustee Tom Donnelly, following a statement made by Vice President Joyce Brasington at a March 28 meeting.
During that meeting, Brasington voiced her disagreement with a week-long trip to India, by Superintendent Tim Throne, meant to further develop Oxford’s International Program— as she had not been present at a March 21 meeting when the majority of the board approved it.
This action prompted Donnelly, who was elected last November, to seek clarification from the board on whether its members should voice their dissenting opinions once decisions are made.
When Donnelly began speaking on the issue at the May 4 meeting, he stated that since he was sworn in, he has consistently been told by the board to follow the motto “once the board makes a decision, all members should support that decision.”
“One of the things I thought I heard (at) the first meeting I attended was that whatever we discuss as a board… once a decision is made, we go with it… (Joyce’s comment on March 28) seems opposite of what I was asked to do when I first started, and my concern is, that in the… week to come, the flurry of information on Facebook and other places about ‘at least one person on this board cares about the community and everybody else on that board only cares about themselves’ is going to create the kind of dissention that we don’t need,” said Donnelly.
Brasington responded that she made her statement to make her opinion known to the public, as the minutes from the March 21 meeting did not reflect her absence for the vote.
“The only reason I brought up that India thing at the time was… the minutes said ‘All board members supported the trip to India’ and my concern is that I wasn’t there, so when it said all board members I just wanted to make sure people knew, it wasn’t all, it was all that were there,” responded Brasington during the meeting.
The minutes from March 21 currently read “The board supports Tim developing our international program, including the upcoming travel to India. Time spent out of the district should be limited to one week per trip.”
Brasington later told this reporter she had notified President Dan D’Alessandro, Administrative Assistant Pat Bono, and Superintendent Tim Throne on March 27 of her intent to request the March 21 board minutes be amended to read “the majority of the board” supported the travel.
In response, Brasington said she was allegedly advised by D’Alessandro to voice her opinion at the following board meeting.
During the May 9 meeting, Secretary
Mark Stepek said he felt Brasington should have approached the situation differently.
“(Like Donnelly), I was similarly taken aback when you said that at the meeting because I thought there could have been another way to go about that because, in all the classes that I’ve taken through the (Michigan Association of School Boards), one of the many themes is that the board come together… (have a) good discussion… (decide) what’s best for our kids, and then, everybody’s gotta be on board (with that decision) … It’s all about the one-on-one conversation, that’s the way that should have been handled, in my opinion,” Stepek told Brasington.
Brasington said she had not intended to go against board decision with her statement.
“I would never want to discredit a decision the board made. I think I’ve gone, like all of you have, out of my way to support a decision once it’s been made. I meant no ill will,” Brasington responded.
Donnelly mentioned he had not meant to attack Brasington with the discussion, but that he had only used her March 28 statement as an example to gain a better understanding of how board members should handle being opposed to majority decisions.
“The bigger picture is, in the future, once we make a decision, are we all in? Because my chance to dissent is in the meeting when we’re talking… what about the next subject?… I want to make sure that our governance is that our chance to dissent is in communication when we’re in a meeting. Once the vote takes place, we’re all Wildcats. We just keep moving forward… or do we open up public opinion again and restart rallying the dissent after the vote? And I think that’s gonna be destructive… In general, how are we doing this?” said Donnelly.
Trustee Heather Shafer said, although board members should work together despite their disagreements, it should also be remembered that individual opinions of public officials are often valued by voters.
“I think we are all public servants. We are voted in by the public. We are voted in by people we have worked with, volunteered with… They vote us in because of what we stand for and the kind of people that we are and what we believe in and things that we stick up for and vote for,” said Shafer.
“I think it’s great if a board sees eye-to-eye on every single item, but that’s not necesssarily a good board. The community calls us all in because of our different experiences and different backgrounds, so we’re not always going to see eye-to-eye on everything and that’s okay. We just all have to work together afterwards to move forward… I think that’s important to remember.”
Treasurer Mike Schweig said he thought the board should consider waiting to make decisions until the entire board comes together whenever possible, so that each member’s voice may be heard and noted during the voting process.
“There was definitely an absence of malice in (the decision on Tim’s travel). Sometimes we look to get something done and we want to get the issue out there, discuss it… Sometimes the element of spontaneity and getting it done flies in the face of what we can do. I just think we need to look at these situations as they come up and say, is this something we should talk about right now or, if that person isn’t here, should we wait?” Schweig added.
Towards the end of the discussion, Brasington stated she felt she had been misled during previous discussions with Throne and that she had been informed the topic of “Board Governance” would be a general discussion about how board members will agree to work, communicate, and hold each other accountable.
“When I talked to Tim about this topic, Tim said this was going to be a general topic… nothing specific… and I feel it was very specific to me. I feel that Tim, you should have stepped in. Dan should have stepped in. I think if there was a specific complaint against a board member… that I should have had the ability to speak to that in closed session,” said Brasington.
Throne apologized to Brasington stating that his interpretation, gathered through earlier discussions with board members, had been that the topic would be general and not focused on the specific actions of any board member.
“I certainly apologize, Joyce, if I should have done something differently… That certainly was not my intent. My intent was… we put an item on the agenda so that you all can discuss in open, when an issue does come forward… how do you all want to address it? I think you can talk about that… I think one of the first things that we should do is just go directly to that person. You all have to decide that, though… the most important thing is that you all decide together how you want to function (as a board). How you want to hold each other accountable?… We have a ton of policies, but how do you actually put those policies into action? That is governance and that is… in my belief, what you guys still need to talk about and work through,” said Throne.
During the board comment portion of the meeting, Guthrie said she hopes the board can come to agreement on how the board will govern, so members can focus on what really matters— the students.
“I feel like we’ve hit some bumpy places and… our board has some work to do. We all do… I’m not real proud of what went down here tonight and I’m not real comfortable with it. I really believe that we’re charged with pulling this together so that we can support amazing programs in our schools… That’s why we’re here,” Guthrie said.
In a later interview with this reporter, D’Alessandro said the board is currently researching several classes to help further guide board members’ communication with one another and with the public and to help educate new board members on diplomatic procedures.
Brasington is expected to read a statement regarding these events at a May 23 board meeting, which will be held at Oxford High (745 N. Oxford Rd.) at 6:30 p.m.