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Behind closed doors, Alexandria School Board proposes ‘peer pressure’ procedure when talking to media

The Alexandria School Board conducted a closed-door meeting on Tuesday night (June 7) on changes to their operating procedures including a new rule on talking to the media.

In the two-hour-long session, the Board went over proposed changes to its operating procedures, as well as “Eight Characteristics of Effective School Boards,” a report from the Center for Public Education. The meeting was attended by Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr., Board Chair Meagan Alderton, Vice Chair Jacinta Greene, as well as Members Chris Harris, Willie Bailey, Michelle Rief, Tammy Ignacio, Kelly Carmichael Booz and Ashley Simpson Baird.

One of the changes would require Board Members to provide their colleagues with any written responses to the media. Another stipulates that individual School Board Members must avoid directly communicating with ACPS staff “about Division business.”

In the meeting, Board Member Willie Bailey — who previously said that he will not talk with the media — said that it’s important that School Board Members are all on the same team as part of a strong collaboration of mutual trust.

“I just think that we need to be aware that it’s a team,” Bailey said. “And I’ll say it over and over again. When one person is speaking about something out in the open, I really do believe that that one individual feels that their — they don’t understand that folks out there on the street, the citizens, the students, the parents, they see it as (reflecting the comments of) an entire Board. So, I just think we just need to be cognizant of that and just make sure we understand that we have to work as a team.”

Member Abdel Elnoubi says the proposed change on School Board media relations creates peer pressure against talking with journalists.

“I missed the retreat for being sick,” Elnoubi told ALXnow. “I need to see the changes within context to be able to react to them. In my opinion, any discussions that touch on board members independence and the Board’s authority is a matter of public concern and should be readily available, but the retreats are not live-streamed or recorded (they are open to the public for in-person attendance however) which limits the public’s access to such discussions that occur often in retreats. When there’s no public or media presence which is almost all the time, I feel it creates a whole set of different dynamics and a group/peer pressure type environment.”

The front doors of Alexandria City Public Schools headquarters were locked at 7 p.m. on Tuesday night while the School Board conducted a Board retreat — a public meeting — in a third-floor work room of the ACPS Central Office at 1340 Braddock Place.

ALXnow gained access to the meeting via the building’s underground parking garage, and the Board clerk confirmed that the doors were locked. She said that ALXnow is the only attendee at such meetings, and that security would unlock the doors.

While the meeting was not open to the public, consultant Laurie Cromwell said that the operating procedures make for an effective Board, although it can seem like a “back-assward” form of governance.

Cromwell was on a local school board in Texas from 1999 to 2003, after which she started her consulting firm Foundation Innovation. She has been a meeting facilitator for ACPS for years.

It seems very foreign. I remember my first year when I was on the School Board thinking it was the most back-assward way to try and make decisions. I mean, I really was just completely dumbfounded [by] the restrictions and the limits. And then, fast forward now since 1999, I get it, but it’s really more not about limiting you, it’s about the due process of allowing the community to see what you’re doing. That’s the bottom line — that the community has a right to know how decisions are being made, and if you’re doing it with doors closed for issues that are not private matters, they are not involved in that process.

Elnoubi and Booz have broken ranks numerous times over Board rules to limit members’ unfettered access to the media.

Booz said she was confused about the language and thought that it directed ACPS to send all messages to media to Board Members.

“I understand your confusion and I will inquire about clarifying this line,” Booz said.

After the meeting, Board Member Chris Harris was asked about the proposed change regarding written responses to the media.

“I haven’t looked at it,” Harris said, and was then shown the document. “I have no comment on it.”

The development comes after Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. told the Board not to comment to the media regarding the stabbing death of Alexandria City High School senior Luis Mejia Hernandez.

Hutchings wrote:

Board,

You may receive media inquiries regarding recent events. Please do not speak about the incident. I’ve spoken with our communications team to please refrain from using the term ‘no comment’.

However, please say ‘I will refer this media inquiry to our communications team’ then forward to Julia (Burgos with ACPS communications) and Kathy (Mimberg of ACPS communications). Thanks a million!

Sent from Dr. Hutchings’ iPhone

Elnoubi did not comply and told ALXnow: “I understand that Dr. Hutchings may be worried if we say something, it may be attributed to the division. We don’t work for the division though, we oversee it and we work for the people of Alexandria, we represent The people. As elected officials, we are free to choose how, where and what to communicate with the community, which gets to hold us accountable. In times like these, the community needs to hear from its leaders and policymakers.”

The Board’s operating procedures state that any questions from media related to personnel, student matters, school programs and exceptional/emergency events should be fielded by Board Chair Meagan Alderton and the ACPS communications team. School Board members are discouraged from discussing division-wide topics, but retain the right to talk to the media as individuals.

According to Board’s current operating procedures:

School Board Members retain the right to speak to the media as individuals, but must understand that any comment will likely be interpreted by the public as an officials statement of the Board.

In a March retreat, Hutchings advised the Board to not talk with the media in a refresher for the board on their operating procedures in the wake of a National Review article stating that ACPS engaged in a coverup over an alleged sexual assault last year.

The following month, Hutchings scolded the Board for their edits of a staff report on his plan to create a School Law Enforcement Advisory Group, which will make recommendations for SROs in schools to Hutchings by this fall. Hutchings emailed Board Members that there were legal issues with their making edits outside of a Board meeting and that the edits were “extremely problematic,” “inappropriate,” and “disrespectful.”

School Board Chair Meagan Alderton and Hutchings would not comment on the matter, except by directing all questions to ACPS communications.

ACPS communications staff did not respond to ALXnow’s calls for comment.

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