A few things that emerged in the sometimes racous meeting of the Floyd County school board Tuesday shows discontent in our county about actions of the superintendent and the board has an unusual interpretation of Virginia’s Open Meetings law and an aversion to allow discussion actions of officials by name.
Some residents of the county openly criticized superintendent Kevin Harris for using the county sheriff’s department to deliver a “keep in line” letter to parent Rob Neukirch for questioning actions he said cost a popular cross country coach her job.
The board’s official response? “We do not call names in public,” declared school board member Margaret Hubbard.
School board chairman Linda King cut Neukirch short when he referred to “a toxic atmosphere” created by Harris.
At school board meetings, an announcement warns public speakers that they cannot refer to school employees or students by name when questioning their actions.
While members of governing bodies like the school board can, under Virginia’s closed meeting law, hold discussions of personnel problems behind closed doors, the law does not apply to what the general public can say in a public comment period.
It is not unusual for school boards to forbid the use of student’s names in comments about specific actions but banning the names of school officials, especially superintendents or principals is unusual. A court decision does allow governing bodies to limit use of names in certain discussions but the rule must apply to both praise and criticism.
Virginia law does allow governing bodies and such to meet behind closed doors to interview, discuss and discipline employees. The decision to hire or fire, however, must be made in public meetings and a public comment period is open, not closed. A guide to the Open Meeting Act can be found here.
School officials are sometimes criticized by name from residents speaking to the county board of superintendents. Complaints about country employees, by name, are allowed in supervisor’s meeting and most other public bodies I have covered as a reporter over the past decade in Floyd and around the country for half a century.
Ordering speakers at the school board to not use names must place the limits on both praise and criticism. In other words, those who want to criticize a school superintendent cannot use his name in support or opposition to his or her actions. The practice is not done at most public meetings of other organizations that I have covered or those I have contacted and asked about their rules.
Discussions of current and past actions involving Dr. Harris appear on social media and our email box contained several messages after the school board meeting Tuesday. Some are critical of the superintendent. Others support him. I don’t cover the school board for any media outlets and was on another assignment during the meeting. Wanda Combs covered for The Floyd Press and Mike Gangloff for The Roanoke Times.
Neukirch said Harris “verbally assaulted” former cross country coach Dawn Weeks after she did not put his daughter to the track relay team. Weeks resigned the track post shortly afterwards but still is an employee of the school and was helping out the football team at the first home game of the year.
Harris, Neukirch says, is an “egomaniac.”
Neukirch confronted Harris at a recent track meet in Hillsville and wondered if the superintendent would fire the new cross country coach if his daughter didn’t win at the meet.
After an exchange that witnesses said was heated by both sides, Harris responded with the letter delivered by deputies week before last and told Neukirch he would be banished from the school if he challenged him again.
“And challenge him I do,” Neukirch said Tuesday. He asked the board to fire Harris and and the 20 or so residents assembled for the public comment period applauded.
Sheriff Shannon Zeman says his department will deliver a letter, if requested, for a $25 fee. He says it happens from time to time.
Carol Moates, another Floyd County resident, said Harris intimidates school employees and creates an “oppressive” environment. The school superintendent has clashed with county supervisors and stopped attending meetings of that board after the county administrator several months ago told him to stop lecturing and tone down his attitude. The county administrator, Dan Campbell, left his post earlier this year and is now administrator of Madison County in the Shenandoah Valley. His confrontation with Harris had nothing to do with taking the new job.
The superintendent has come under first from other residents of the county for not moving to Floyd County after taking the job. His original contract required him to move but asked the board to amend the agreement and lives in Montgomery County. The law does not require him to live in the county but it is unusual for a school superintendent to live in another city or county.
Some teachers and principals of Floyd County schools also live outside the county.
Other residents question why Harris’ daughter attends Floyd County High School and not a Montgomery County school. It is not against the law to do so. Records show Harris owns property in Floyd County and the taxes he pays for that land goes to the county.
Hubbard said those who want to talk specifically about Harris with the school board should request a meeting which she said would be held behind closed doors.
If such a meeting is scheduled, it could go beyond the provisions of the Open Meetings Act, which covers members of a governing board taking personnel actions and not discussions with the public.
After the public comment period, about 20 residents left the meeting and missed a later controversy over suggestions to name the Floyd County High School football field for longtime coach Winfred Beale and the gymnasium for Alan Cantrell, the coach with the best winning record in basketball and who has taken teams often to state championships.
Much of the discussion focused on comments from an earlier meeting concerns about reputations a school member said causes some with names used to recognition have become the topic of scandals — like Joe Paterno, the Penn State coaching lesson who lost his job and his reputation because of his purported involvement in sexual abuse of young men by an assistant or Jared Fogle, the Subway spokesman who pleaded guilty recently for child pornography and other charges.
Cantrell and Beale, however, are coaches with sterling reputations with no hint of problems. This issues are ongoing and may focus on whether or not a stadium or gym should be named for someone who is still on the job.
With such controversies occupying the school system, some may wonder how the conflicts affect students and their educations.
For the record, I tangled with Floyd County High School principal Ray Hollandsworth as a student in 1964. He and then school superintendent Alonzo Monday wanted to kick me out of school because I had reported to The Roanoke Times on a threatened strike by student school buses over pay, benefits and job conditions. I worked for the Times as a correspondent while in high school and joined the staff after graduation in 1965.
It took intervention by English and Journalism teacher Ruth Hallman, one of the mentors that helped me become a newspaperman, to keep me in school and able to graduate later that year.
The issue then was freedom of the press and open communication.
Based on what happened at the school board meeting this week, those kinds of issues still exist more than a half century later.
(Edited after original publication to fix typos and to add information.)