After a contentious debate of approximately half an hour, the Muscogee County School Board decided in a split vote Tuesday evening to hire independent counsel for legal advice on how the board’s conduct might affect the school district’s accreditation.
In the 5-2-1 vote, voting yes were chairwoman Pat Hugley Green of District 1, Naomi Buckner of District 4, Laurie McRae of District 5, Mark Cantrell of District 6 and Cathy Williams of District 7. Voting no were John Thomas of District 2, who participated via phone, and Frank Myers of District 8. Vanessa Jackson of District 3 abstained. Vice chairwoman Kia Chambers, the nine-member board’s lone countywide representative, was absent.
Before that vote, Myers moved to table the vote on hiring independent counsel. Jackson seconded his motion. The effort failed when only Thomas joined them.
The board had voted 8-0 June 26, while Myers was absent, to table the issue, then decided it at Tuesday evening’s called meeting before the regularly scheduled work session.
Myers’ attempt to amend the independent counsel motion also failed Tuesday evening because board attorney Greg Ellington, serving as the parliamentarian, ruled the amendment wasn’t germane to the motion. Here’s the text of Myers’ failed amendment:
“That a resolution be passed by this governing body that directs the Secretary to the Muscogee County Board of Education to immediately write and hand deliver a letter via courier, addressed to all six Chattahoochee Circuit Superior Court Judges, individually and collectively, with the following request:
“Pursuant to OCGA Section 35-3-8.1, the Muscogee County Board of Education respectfully requests that any or all judges of the Chattahoochee Circuit Superior Court Judges call upon the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to investigate wrongdoing within our local public school system. While we believe there are facts surrounding the injury to Montravious Thomas and the death of Roy Newman that merit particular attention, we ask that in the event you grant our request, that the GBI be asked to address any and all areas of concern as conveyed by members of the Muscogee County Board of Education and/or any employee of the Muscogee County School District.”
Montravious, then 13, is the student that contracted behavior specialist Bryant Mosley allegedly body-slammed “no less than” five times while disciplining Montravious Sept. 12 in the alternative education AIM Program at the Edgewood Student Services Center, where staff failed to get him medical treatment and sent him home on a bus, according to the $25 million lawsuit filed on Montravious’ behalf. His right leg was amputated below the knee Oct. 18.
Newman is the MCSD bus driver who died when his replacement bus crashed into a tree Aug. 22, injuring the seven students on board.
Ellington recommended the independent counsel after Myers accused him in a June 22 email to the board of “intentionally misleading the board” in the Montravious case, “and he also played a part in orchestrating the delay in advising the board this event of Montravious being injured had even occurred,” Myers wrote.
In an email to the board earlier that day, Ellington wrote that Myers offering opposing counsel “relevant facts” without sharing that information with the board’s counsel is improper because “that privilege belongs to the Board and District as a whole and cannot be waived by any individual board member.”
Myers countered in his email to the board that “no privilege is absolute. If there is underlying fraud and/or criminal activity involved – as I believe is the case here – NO privilege would apply, and certainly not the attorney-client privilege Mr. Ellington seeks to invoke to protect his own self interests, fellow lawyers and the interests of the Superintendent.”
During the called meeting Tuesday evening, Green read a statement explaining the rationale for hiring independent counsel is based on allegations Myers and Thomas made against MCSD’s lawyers in a “social media video” and Myers’ “memo to opposing counsel.”
“This independent counsel would review and advise the board of clear and appropriate steps, not just looking at past conduct but also looking ahead so we would be able to put our best foot forward,” Green said.
MCSD’s accreditation agency, AdvancEd, is scheduled for its visit to the district Oct. 29 through Nov. 1. MCSD’s current accreditation was awarded Dec. 8, 2007, and expires June 30, 2018.
Ellington told the board that Myers’ criticisms of him and his firm are “completely unfounded and baseless.” He might be “a fact witness” to these allegations, Ellington said, so “I don’t think you should be hearing from me about these issues because I’m, to some extent, whether I like it or not, in the middle of it.”
Cantrell asked Ellington whether it would be a conflict of interest.
“If you want to look into the propriety of the conduct, any conduct that might bear on your accreditation, as board members I think you should hear from somebody else and not from me or somebody in my firm,” Ellington said.
Jackson asked Green whether she thinks the board is in danger of losing accreditation.
“We have a concern, so we want to make sure we approach this in a proactive manner,” Green said.
McRae said she researched accreditation issues in other school districts. She listed some of the “behavior that was cited” and asked the board to think whether they apply here:
▪ Divisiveness on the board.
▪ Infighting among school board members.
▪ Undermining school district administrators.
▪ Board members hurling insults at each other.
▪ Hostile and counter-productive environment.
▪ Climate of uncertainty, suspicion and mistrust.
“Mr. Myers in his interview on All On Georgia called our district a toxic environment,” McRae said, “so I find it hard to understand why he would not want an independent counsel to come in and take a look at these things so that this ‘toxic environment’ does not lead to our having accreditation issues.”
Myers replied, “I do believe this is a toxic environment in this school system and this administration, and if that causes problems with accreditation I am sorry. That is my opinion. I’m doing everything I can do to try to make things better. Some people don’t like the way I approach things, and I get that.”
Myers said he and Thomas believe “there has been criminal conduct committed in this school district with respect to Montravious Thomas and Mr. Roy Newman, who’s dead. One young man has no leg; the other man has no life. … I don’t work for this board; I work for the public.”
Myers told Ellington, “You shouldn’t be sitting at this table giving legal advice to this group with this cloud of suspicion over your head. … I would love to know what rule we violated by offering to tell the truth.”
Myers said hiring independent counsel would bring the district more “bad publicity” and the duties are “vague.”
Buckner asserted, “From what is going on right now, what has transpired tonight only, it’s very clear that we need to engage (independent) counsel.” Then, referring to McRae’s list of improper board behavior, Buckner added, “We have done just about all of that tonight.”
Later during the meeting, Jay Wanslea, the associate director for Georgia AdvancEd, told the board, “We’re not focusing on the school board. Let me be clear: Teaching and learning is what we’re about.”
AdvancEd’s “Standards for Quality” for school system accreditation addresses school board conduct, termed as the “governing body” in the first three indicators listed:
▪ Indicator 2.1 The governing body establishes policies and supports practices that ensure effective administration of the system and its schools.
▪ Indicator 2.2 The governing body operates responsibly and functions effectively.
▪ Indicator 2.3 The governing body ensures that the leadership at all levels has the autonomy to meet goals for achievement and instruction and to manage day-to-day operations effectively.
The Ledger-Enquirer has asked officials representing the Georgia School Boards Association and the Georgia Council of School Board Attorneys whether an individual board member may disclose privileged information, but none of those officials would share their opinion.