In the latest Richland 2 school board meeting, a man stood up and read an online comment attributed to Board Chair Teresa Holmes.
The comment, posted with a news article, accused the speaker, frequent Richland 2 critic Gus Philpott, of being racist. Holmes banged the gavel, saying board policy prohibits public speakers from criticizing a specific person. The speaker and Holmes, who later did not deny making the comment, went back and forth between defying and interrupting each other for about a minute.
Board member Monica Scott spoke up to defend the speaker. Scott and Holmes began arguing, Holmes saying Scott was out of order. After some back-and-forth, board member Lindsay Agostini spoke up, saying it was Holmes who was out of order.
During a break in the messy cross-talk, Holmes said, “If we acted like this in a classroom… you would put students out of class for being out of order.”
Recent infighting like this example from an Oct. 12 meeting have become increasingly common at Richland 2’s school board meetings in recent months. The twice-monthly meetings are held to set the budget, oversee the superintendent, set policies and receive input from the public.
But recently, the meetings have not reflected that purpose. The lack of civility is getting so bad it obstructs official business.
Last month, three school board members walked out of a meeting following a dispute over the amount of time they had to review Superintendent Baron Davis’ proposed new contract. Since the seven-member board needs five members present to vote, the walkout ended the meeting, delaying action on key items such as teacher hires.
The board held two follow-up meetings to get caught up on agenda items originally scheduled for the Sept. 15 meeting that ended with the walkout.
In a follow-up meeting, Scott referred to Holmes’ leadership as a “dictatorship,” and several board members went public with their disputes with board leadership in interviews with news reporters.
The board is loosely divided into two factions. The first is the group of board members who walked out of the September meeting: Agostini, Scott and Lashonda McFadden. The remaining four are Holmes, Vice-Chair Manning, Board Secretary Amelia McKie and Cheryl Caution-Parker.
Unlike schools boards throughout the country that have faced divisions over issues like COVID-19 masks or how to teach racism in history classes, Richland 2’s arguments often start with how board members interact with one another rather than fighting over a specific policy.
While Caution-Parker and McKie often vote with board leadership, they tend to stay out of arguments during public meetings. The State reached out to Caution-Parker and McKie for comment.
In response to an emailed interview request, McKie replied, “I remain focused on student academic achievement, student and employee safety, and the myriad policies and issues that affect our students and teachers, particularly the COVID pandemic that is still a very real and present concern.”
What’s the problem?
Depending on whom is asked, either Richland 2’s board is being run by a ”core 4” who act autonomously without regard to their elected colleagues or a group of three board members playing dirty to tip the scales in their favor.
Agostini accused Holmes of being “incompetent as a leader,” failing to follow established meeting rules and not allowing debates she disagrees with.
“It’s a lack of permitting conversation and a lack of her leadership skills,” Agostini said. “She does not know how to run a meeting.”
During the Sept. 15 meeting when Agostini and other board members walked out, Agostini had asked to postpone the vote on renewing Davis’ contract. But Holmes overruled her, denying a vote to postpone.
While the walkout postponed the vote that evening, the board approved the new contract a week later.
Disputes over procedural issues have been plaguing the board for months, sparking many of the fights. In March, Agostini asked board leadership to get an expert on meeting rules to attend the meetings, but that never happened, she said.
McFadden said her main frustrations with board leadership is not being able to get information, even on routine issues such as contracts, curriculum, or getting preferred items added to the agenda.
“I can’t get information from anywhere,” McFadden told The State. “It could be just ‘how are teachers performing?’”
Scott, who was first elected to Richland 2’s school board in 2012, said the district’s newly combative meetings are a departure from how the board used to operate.
Holmes said there is more harmony on the board than some other board members say, and that the narrative of a chaotic board is being used for political purposes.
“We have...members on the Richland 2 board who want it to be perceived that the board is chaotic,” Holmes told The State. “They want people to be elected who think like they do. It is very obvious the their agenda is not about children.”
Rather, Holmes accused other board members — she refused to name names — of stoking public anger so they can the upper hand in an election, thus tilting the power of the board in their favor. Richland 2’s next scheduled elections are in 2022.
“I would encourage people to look at the board meetings with clear eyes,” Holmes said.
Both Holmes and Manning pointed out that a recent agenda item to rename buildings was proposed by Scott, voted on and approved. That proves board leadership is willing to take seriously and work with Scott, despite differences in opinion, Holmes and Manning said.
Sometimes, tensions spill over during a portion of each meeting when board members are allowed to comment on whatever topic they choose. The time is often used to talk about achievements within the schools, thank stakeholders, etc. However, it’s also an opportunity for board members to criticize or rebut criticism.
At the end of the Oct. 12 board meeting, Agostini used her time to apologize to Philpott, the public speaker, for the kerfuffle at the beginning of the meeting. Holmes hit the gavel as Agostini was speaking and Agostini quickly finished. When it was Scott’s turn, she made a motion for Holmes to step down until she took a course on ethics and meeting procedure.
After that, all hell broke loose.
Holmes banged her gavel and tried to move forward with the meeting. Agostini seconded Scott’s motion. Scott called for the district’s attorney to intervene. Caution-Parker, who often stays out of the crosstalk, spoke up.
“The children and the highlights are the most important things it’s supposed to be about. That’s why I got elected, that’s why I spent 40 years in Richland 2,” Caution-Parker said, as Scott talked over her, still seeking a vote on her motion. “But all this other stuff is a bunch of crud. There’s a way. [inaudible] This evening, that was not the way.”
Holmes moved to close the meeting, but not before throwing in a jab against Scott for her 2019 disorderly conduct charge for allegedly shoving the sister of a state senator after a school board meeting. The charges against Scott, who then went by Monica Elkins-Johnson, were dropped because her case was diverted to a pre-trial intervention program.
The brouhahas erupting from the board member comment portion of the meetings is part of the reason Holmes is considering removing board comments from the agenda. The proposed decision has led to backlash from other board members.
“This is one of their slick tactics to take our First Amendment rights away and not allow us to have a voice. It’s unethical and it’s immoral,” Scott said.
Going forward, all board members need to talk more respectfully to one another and avoid crossing lines, such as attacking someone’s character, Manning said.
“At the end of the day we need to figure out as adults how to get along and how to lose gracefully,” Manning said. “We try to teach our youth in sports how to lose gracefully when things aren’t going our way, and I think we all need to take that lesson as adults.”