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Wednesday, May 22, 2019
   
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Education & Career Dev.

March 27 - Jolene Byrne Publishes Open Letter to State Board of Education's Accrediting Board, After Declining to Meet

By Lou Phelps, SBJ

March 27, 2019 - Former Savannah-Chatham Board of Education President Jolene Byrne (pictured in center), who did not seek re-election when her four-year term ended in December 2018, was asked by the what is known as the "Advanced Ed" accrediting committee of the state's education arm (formerly known as SACS)," to be interviewed in their year two review of the conduct of the SCCPSS public schools' Board of Education.  

Instead, Byrne wrote Advanced Ed the following letter, which she published today on her Facebook page, and has declined to meet with them.  In the letter, Byrne alleges a number of what she believes are violations of Georgia's Open Meetings Laws, or are unprofessional activities by Board members which she states she observed in her final year as Board President.  

 It is published here in its entirety:  

"March 27, 2019

An Open Letter to the Advanced Ed Investigative Committee:

I imagine that during the course of your visit, you have been repeatedly reassured that the School Board and Superintendent of Savannah Chatham County Public Schools have gone above and beyond to meet Advanced Ed’s Governing Standards. No doubt, you have been provided with copies of documents from hundreds of hours of workshops, committee meetings, coaching sessions, public and private meetings, all dedicated to reassuring you that nothing is out of order, that everyone is getting along just wonderfully, and that the democratically elected Board has shown proper submission to the highly compensated Superintendent. It is quite likely that you have also been assured, now that the former Board President has ended her term, there will be no more unpleasant public displays of disagreement in Board meetings, no more transparent social media posts, and certainly no more objections to administrative incompetence or corruption.

Advanced Ed is a private company wielding undue authority over democratically elected bodies. By granting a private entity the ability to oversee, investigate, and recommend the removal of publicly elected officials, the State Legislature has effectively removed local control of public schools and undermined the democratic process.

If I had respect for your authority over a democratically elected body, I would sit down and submit myself to the type of interrogation I experienced when you began your “investigation” into the politically motivated, petty, and false allegations that brought you to our district. If I had been granted the basic elements of due process, rather than being denied an attorney’s presence at your questioning, being denied a right to know who made accusations against me and what those accusations were, being denied a right to object to leading and biased questions, being denied a right to any sort of follow up after being interrogated, and being denied a copy of any of the evidence upon which you based your demonstrably inaccurate conclusions in your report, then I might overlook the questionable legal authority upon which you base your investigation and answer your questions just a transparently and politely as I did the first time.

As it stands, I do not respect your authority, I do not trust your process, and I will not submit to any further “investigation.” Had I known, when you first began your amateur detective games and Star Chamber tactics how very meaningless the entire operation was, I would not have participated the first time. Your presence in our community has incited needless anxiety about the future accreditation of our district, anxiety that has been hyped by local media and capitalized upon by special interests in our community during the most recent School Board election. The law is clear: the State will step in and remove all Board members and replace them with political appointees before allowing Advanced Ed to revoke district accreditation. Therefore, compliance with Advanced Ed demands is not about protecting the district from losing accreditation, it is about protecting school board members from losing their positions on the Board.

However, I do believe the citizens of Savannah and Chatham County have a vested interest in the ethical functioning of its democratically elected School Board. For that reason, I feel the need to bring to light issues of serious concern that should be investigated, not by Advanced Ed, but by the proper authorities.

Cover up culture is pervasive within the Savannah Chatham County Public School System. It permeates the Board, the Superintendent's office, 208 Bull Street, and it trickles down into schools, from principals to classrooms.

The culture of SCCPSS mandates that it is more important to protect the reputation of the system and those in power than to protect the basic human dignity of individuals, students, parents, teachers, employees, or the community. It is a poorly kept secret within our district that nepotism and incompetence is systemic, money drives ethics, and accountability is dead. While there are pockets of integrity and competence throughout our school district, the pervasive culture is one of obsessive and punitive control, usually exercised to cover up incompetence or unethical actions.

The Board members have failed to address the toxic cover up culture of the district for three reasons. First, the threat of an investigation by Advanced Ed makes honest and well-intentioned Board members afraid to question the Superintendent’s actions. When I first became a member of the Board, the former Superintendent informed me I was not to visit schools without his prior permission and an escort, unless it was for a public event or my own child’s school. In the early months of my term, I joined a casual discussion a fellow board member, Julie Wade, and an administrator, Tammy Perkins, were having about transportation one afternoon. Shortly thereafter, the Superintendent and the Board Attorney threatened to report my impropriety to Advanced Ed. When I asked if the other Board member had been similarly warned, the answer was no. It took me a moment to realize why I was being singled out - the Superintendent was facing intense scrutiny for covering up a bus audit, and I was the only Board member demanding answers. It became clear that the threat of Advanced Ed was a way to keep Board members in line, and I learned my lesson well. I systematically avoided any private or unsanctioned conversation with district staff for the remainder of my term. This effectively kept me, and most Board members, from learning about what was actually happening in our schools.

The second reason Board members have failed to address cover up culture is that many are actively benefiting from it. It is well documented that Irene Hines, and possibly other Board members, have accepted campaign contributions from the current Superintendent, a clear violation of our code of ethics. In another instance, Connie Hall voted to give her husband a large raise and promotion in the district, a clear violation of the law. When ethics complaints were made against her husband by other employees, the investigation went nowhere. Given the pattern of retribution in our district, it seems unlikely anyone would be foolish enough to make such complaints against a Board member’s husband in the future.

Another example of how Board members benefit from turning a blind eye to corruption in our district is to look at where their children go to school. What are the odds that every single Board member with a child in our school system has managed to “win” the specialty lottery, when the majority of families in the district do not? Or perhaps the community could examine the reports filed by lobbyists of construction companies to see how many dinners, golf games, and luncheons certain Board members have attended over the years, and how often contracts were awarded to these lobbyist’s clients.

The final reason Board members have failed to address the cover up culture is the intense internal social pressure put upon Board members by other Board members to conform. More than once, the Board has violated open meetings laws by jointly attempting to sanction the Board President in secrecy. The focus of the Board in these instances is not enforcing ethical standards – members defended each other for ethics violations, such as Irene Hines accepting a campaign contribution from the Superintendent – nor are they to enforce professional standards – the Board ignored Julie Wade’s very public criticism of the Superintendent on social media but wrote a joint letter of concern for a more innocuous social media post by the Board President. The focus of the Board is to cover up its own impropriety, avoid controversy, protect themselves individually, and protect each other collectively when politically expedient. When a Board member steps out of line with too many pointed questions, by speaking an uncomfortable truth, or by questioning the judgment of the Superintendent, the rest of the Board quickly sweeps in to sanction and silence the offender into submission. Sometimes they even write letters of complaint to Advanced Ed, reinforcing the cycle of cover up and control.

I have little doubt that Michael Johnson, a Board member who has largely resisted group think, and the two new Board members, with their fresh perspectives, have been facing significant pressure to fall into line. Advanced Ed’s impending visit has no doubt been used to encourage them to hold off on asking any tough questions or challenging the status quo.

While there are numerous instances of unethical actions taken by the district’s administration and Board, I feel the need to highlight two particularly egregious incidents to illustrate the corruption of the system.

The first, and most alarming, is the cover up of endangering students at West Chatham Middle School by allowing a coach to continue teaching while being investigated for abusing one of his students. A social worker found there was evidence of abuse, the school was aware of the assault of a student that took place on camera in their hallways and in the coach’s office, the school nurse treated the child who was assaulted and documented the coach’s actions as the reason for the injury, and yet this coach was not put on leave. While the abused boy was withdrawn from school, this coach continued to teach classes, unsupervised, and was prominently featured on the school’s website and social media page. Students were even encouraged to go to this coach’s office to buy tickets to a social event. When alarmed parents at the school brought this incident to my attention, I immediately asked the Superintendent to investigate. She claimed the coach had been removed from the school since the beginning of the investigation and was not teaching. Having evidence to the contrary, I asked her to confirm that she knew this for a fact, not just from being informed by staff. She insisted she was certain the coach had not been given any access to students or the classroom. Right about the time I got these emails from the Superintendent, the photos on the school website and social media were removed. When I emailed the Superintendent and Board the evidence that not only had the coach been teaching that very day, but that someone was actively deleting the evidence that evening, she refused to answer any further questions. To my knowledge, no Board member followed up on this cover up. Should anyone wish to investigate this matter, I have the emails, photos, screen shots, nurse’s report, and notes of the parent’s account. The coach was eventually dismissed from the system, but was later rehired to teach at another school in our district.

The second ethical violation the community should be aware of involves the Superintendent’s evaluation. As per the Superintendent’s contract, the Board must create an instrument to evaluate the Superintendent annually. We did so at the beginning of her tenure. Dionne Hoskins-Brown led the effort, though the entire Board had input. For reasons that were unclear, Hoskins-Brown did not want the evaluation instrument to be sent in emails, and so personally drove to Board member’s houses to drop off draft copies. We finalized the instrument in an executive session. At the end of the year, when the evaluation was to take place, I contacted Hoskins-Brown with a finalized draft of the instrument to confirm that the scoring system was correct. She confirmed. All Board members participated in the evaluation. Following standard procedure, the results were given to Internal Audit to be compiled, scored, and reported back to the Board. The resulting score indicated that the Superintendent was doing an adequate job, but the score was not high enough that she qualified for a bonus, as outlined in her contract. Once Hoskins-Brown learned that the Superintendent had not been rated highly enough to earn a bonus, she became irate and insisted that the evaluation results were inaccurate. She accused the Internal Auditor, Marshall Withers, of being incompetent, and the scoring system as being flawed, although she had personally approved of the scoring methodology before the results were tallied. The Board decided to review the scoring in the following month before finalizing the results.

Without including other Board members, Hoskins-Brown went to Internal Audit and instructed Marshall Withers to change the calculations. The means of calculating those changes were not revealed to the Board. At the next Board meeting, I asked Mr. Withers to give a public presentation on the instrument and how it was used, including scoring, for the sake of transparency, making it clear he was not to share the actual results of the evaluation, just the process. He was more than willing to do so, but the Board objected and insisted that such information should not be made public. I honored their concerns and waited until we were in executive session to ask for the calculations. Multiple Board members objected to any of us seeing that information, claiming it was irrelevant. When I persisted in my inquiry, Dionne Hoskins-Brown raised her voice, made accusations against Mr. Withers and myself, and finally resorted to name-calling. Larry Lower and Julie Wade encouraged her disruptive actions. I called the meeting back to order and Hoskins-Brown announced she would not allow me to speak, continuing her loud complaints until it became impossible for me to conduct the meeting as Chair. I turned the meeting over to the Vice President, Larry Lower, and left the room. I have no idea what was decided after that. What I do know is that somehow, on an evaluation rubric with a scale of 1 to 4, the Superintendent was given a final score of 4.4, a raise, and an additional year on her contract. It was also made clear that the Board intended to use the same evaluation rubric this year.

There are many more instances of the pervasive cover up culture in our district, from ethics investigations swept under the rug, to principals lying about harassing teachers and parents, to Board members meeting with staff to encourage them to make false accusations against other Board members. The Superintendent has set the standard. She not only frequently misleads the Board, but has admitted to lying to the Board about district matters and personal actions in order to protect herself. Because of this frequent dishonesty, toward the end of my term, all meetings with the Superintendent were recorded by the Board Secretary or myself, with the Superintendent’s full knowledge. There is no reason why an open records request shouldn’t provide evidence to back up what I have written here.

I encourage anyone who has a stake in our public schools to take a close look at what our district has become. Parents are afraid to report harassment or abuse for fear their children will be targeted by teachers and principals. Teachers afraid to be whistleblowers because they will be fired or pushed out. Administrators are forced to cover for other administrators, for fear of retribution. Competent staff are replaced with family, friends, and sorority sisters of upper level administration with little explanation or oversight by the Board. Students who are victims of bullying, violence, or even sexual assault have been pushed out of their schools, and sometimes the entire school system, rather than have the district address the misconduct, or act to protect children. The Internal Audit system is broken by design. Rarely are reports investigated, and when they are, the standard procedure is to ask the administrator, principal, or teacher accused of wrong doing if they are guilty. The results of that type of inquiry are quite predictable. And the Superintendent is immune from investigation without a vote for Board approval, a change that was made after I authorized Internal Audit to follow up on an ethics complaint that involved the former Superintendent.

We have so much to be proud of in our school district. So many teachers, councilors, nurses, bus drivers, principals, and even administrators put their whole heart into their work. They sacrifice so much for their students, for their community. They deserve to work in a district that treats everyone with respect. They deserve to know that they are valued, trusted, and supported at work. Too often, these dedicated educators are pushed out by the corrosive culture of our school district. Our attrition rate is high, and it is rising. We have wonderful families, bright and eager children, students with so much potential, in every school. Too often, families are treated with disrespect or marginalized and students are treated like FTE counts or test scores on a data wall instead of children. The more vulnerable or in need the family or child is, the more likely they will be victims of the district’s abusive cover up culture. Our enrollment numbers are falling, the appearance of school improvement is largely a shell game, and while the district publishes glamorous photos of the Superintendent giving awards and cutting ribbons, the State is taking over more and more of our schools. We have consistently failed to prioritize serving students over making the Superintendent and district look good.

So, members of the Advanced Ed Committee here to investigate our district, I am sure you will find everything is in order. All of the boxes you created have been checked. The retreats have been held, the consultants have been paid with tax dollars, the policies have been revised. Hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars have been spent making the district LOOK good - hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars that should have been spent ensuring that the district DO good. On behalf of all of the parents and advocates in the community who are tired of watching the Board and Superintendent play political games at the expense of our children’s education and future, please go home. We have work to do, dismantling the corrupt cover up culture of the Savannah Chatham County Public School System, and you are just getting in the way.

Sincerely,

Jolene Byrne
Byrne Advocacy
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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