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School Board updates its operating procedures and rules on media engagement

The Alexandria School Board approved changes to their operating procedures on Thursday night (June 16), and updated rules on engagement with the media.

The operating procedures are a guide for Members’ behavior in office — and state that comments made to media by Board members will “likely be interpreted by the public as an official statement of the Board,” and that all statements (when Members are designated to speak on behalf of the board) must be sent to the Board Chair and Superintendent. The changes now state that School Board Members must now avoid directly communicating with ACPS staff “about Division business”, and clarified language to say that Board members will now receive all written responses to media made by the Alexandria City Public Schools communications team.

The Board unanimously approved School Board Member Kelly Carmichael Booz’s clarified language on the document. Booz said that the change eliminates confusion — that Board Members do not need to provide their colleagues with any written responses to the media.

“My proposal will be to amend that just so it’s really clear what that whole purpose of that was to just essentially say that written responses from ACPs communications to the media on behalf of the school division will also be distributed to school board members and the superintendent,” Booz said.

On June 7, the School Board conducted a closed door retreat at ACPS Central Office to discuss their operating procedures. The meeting was supposed to be open to the public. ACPS communications has not responded to multiple requests for comment to clarify the operating procedures or explain why the doors were locked.

Per the operating procedures, 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.

The Board also voted 5-4 against a proposal by Member Abdel Elnoubi to table the changes to the operating procedures until this fall, which he said would give the public time to review them.

Elnoubi says that there hasn’t been public discussion on the Board’s operating procedures since the Board retreats are not recorded.

“This is the operating procedures that govern our board, how we’re going to work together, how we interact with the community, everything,” Elnoubi said. “I feel it just serves everyone better if we wait, if we postpone this item… giving the community an opportunity to comment, to react for the sake of transparency, just to make sure that everything is being discussed here in a meeting that’s recorded.”

Board Chair Meagan Alderton, Vice Chair Jacinta Greene and Board Members Willie Bailey, Tammy Ignacio and Christopher Harris voted against Elnoubi’s proposal, and he and Board Members Michelle Rief, Ashley Simpson Baird and Booz voted for it.

Board Member Willie Bailey said that Board Members should have brought up their reservations during the retreats.

“I guess I’m a little mixed up or confused,” Bailey said. “I’m sure if there were some serious issues, we probably should have brought this forward during our last meeting, retreat, we had.”

At multiple Board retreats this year, outgoing Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. urged the newly elected Board to not engage with the media by reminding them of their own operating procedures. Hutchings announced his resignation on the last day of school, June 10, and did not attend the meeting. Hutchings is out of the office until June 21.

In March, Hutchings gave the Board a refresher on the operating procedures after Board Members Michelle Rief, Ashley Simpson-Baird, Elnoubi, Kelly Carmichael Booz and Chris Harris edited his proposal for the School Law Enforcement Partnership Advisory Committee. Hutchings said that such “behind the scenes” operations raised transparency issues by violating the Virginia Freedom Of Information Act. In that meeting, he also advised that Board Members not talk to the media without going through ACPS communications staff first.

After the fatal stabbing of an Alexandria City High School student on May 24, Hutchings advised School Board members in an email to not talk with the media. 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

Alderton does not engage in social media, and her public comments are usually limited to official Board meetings and pre-screened monthly editorials to local newspapers. She recently spoke to The Washington Post and WJLA following Hutchings’ resignation announcement, but when pressed for comment by Fox 5 DC for a story about parents upset over a lack of communication regarding the student’s death, she provided no comment.

Most School Board Members haven’t made a single statement to the press since being sworn into office in January. The only exceptions are Elnoubi, Booz and Rief, who have spoken numerous times on the record with ALXnow.

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