The Hampton School Board chose a new board chair at a meeting Wednesday following months of quiet disputes about Joe Kilgore’s leadership.
In a 5-1 vote, the board elected Ann Cherry as chair and Richard Mason as vice chair for the next six months. It’s one of the first times in years a board member has cast a “nay” vote.
Kilgore said he’d told board members he wouldn’t seek the chair again but he was going to “vote his conscience” against Cherry and Mason. Kilgore’s vice chair for the last year, Reginald Woodhouse, abstained.
“Because of your meek and humble personality, you may be feeling that your decision-making has cost you this position as chair,” Woodhouse told Kilgore. “But let me remind you that leadership is the unique ability to control one’s power and use it only for the benefit of others.”
The fault lines on the board trace back to the fall, when the district faced teacher protests about reopening. Several board members have chastised Kilgore’s leadership style and communication in the board’s response and subsequent conversations.
The board rarely disagrees in public. But since the reopening decision, it has held two special meetings to talk about communication and Kilgore’s leadership.
“He’s not good at communication, and I’ve said that to him,” Cherry, who served as chair from 2018-2020, said at a board meeting on June 16. “And this board needs a communicator.”
It was an unusual meeting, a couple of hours before the board’s regularly scheduled meeting at 6:30 p.m. Instead of the meeting space on the ground floor where the board holds regular meetings, they met in a small conference room near Superintendent Jeffery Smith’s office.
When the conversation turned to Kilgore’s communication style, the board asked Smith to leave. The board is in charge of hiring the superintendent, and Cherry suggested it put him in a “precarious” situation. The board secretary also left the room, leaving the board alone with a Daily Press reporter.
Much of the conversation revolved around the events before and after a meeting in November at Sandy Bottom Nature Park, following the district’s first attempts at reopening.
A plan announced by Smith to start bringing students back in-person in November had drawn pushback and protests from teachers. Board members didn’t publicly express qualms with the plan, but some were concerned about what they had heard from teachers.
At Sandy Bottom, Jason Samuels, Tina Banks-Gray, Mason and Cherry said they didn’t feel like they were being listened to leading up to a special meeting on Oct. 27 to address teacher’s concerns.
After the Sandy Bottom meeting, Mason said he sent a text message to Kilgore, Smith and vice chair Reginald Woodhouse about how he felt, using the words “bullied” and “manipulation.” He had wanted a meeting to address plans even before the return date was announced.
“I will not serve on a board where those tactics are used and others are marginalized based on those things,” Mason said he told them.
Board members disputed timelines and phone calls in the June meeting and about how much Kilgore communicated. That meeting was the first time since the Sandy Bottom meeting in which the whole board had discussed the issues together.
Kilgore said he’s been very careful about communication since November, going so far as to take every text sent to a board member and send it to the rest.
“It is literally cut and paste,” Kilgore said. “So, what I say to Ms. Cherry is exactly what I say to Dr. Mason. You guys have gotten lots of texts from me.”
Woodhouse also defended Kilgore in the meeting, noting one of the things many board members have cited as his strengths: his knowledge of board policies and procedures. Cherry said that’s one of the reasons she nominated him last year to replace her as chair.
“Some of the ways that some things have been brought to Mr. Kilgore, I would’ve been very upset,” Woodhouse said.
Changes in state law create an unusual situation this year. All board elections have been moved to November instead of some in June, so the board decided in June to hold another organization meeting in January in addition to the one they’d already announced this month.
That means Cherry will be chair for only six months. Before serving on the board, Cherry was executive director of public relations and marketing for the district for 17 years, experience that Samuels cited in nominating her.
Mason will be a new face in the board’s leadership, still in his first term. Cherry said she was excited to have “fresh eyes” as the district moves out of the pandemic.
“One of the things he and I both talked about is the need for strong communication,” Cherry said in the meeting. “We as a board have to have that.”
Matt Jones, 757-247-4729, firstname.lastname@example.org