Attendees walking into Monday night's Camdenton R-III school board meeting noticed students holding signs, wearing bright t-shirts and chanting. The students, their parents and other community members are on a mission to have their voices be heard.
The district's policy on public comment during school board meetings has come under fire in recent weeks as being too restrictive.
During the most recent board meeting, the school board took a serious look at their current public commenting policy, deciding to table public comment discussion until more research could be conducted. If Camdenton R-III District patrons wish to speak at a school board meeting they have two options: they can either request to be put on the agenda at least seven days before the meeting or they can show up to the meeting and fill out a public comment card but they must only speak about topics on the agenda.
Susan Goldammer, an attorney for the Missouri School Board Association (MSBA), explained policies and presented information regarding public participation in board meetings.
"No law gives the public the right to speak at a school board meeting," Goldammer said.
She said that the Missouri Sunshine Law allowed the public to be present, but did not give them the right to speak.
During the meeting's regularly-scheduled public comment portion, a handful of patrons chose to speak about the district's public comment policies, particularly in regards to the case of Camdenton Middle School Principal Sean Kirksey. Kirksey was placed on paid administrative leave in June following allegations of improprieties when handling the statewide Missouri Assessment Program (MAP) tests at the middle school.
Fifteen-year-old Sophie Shore told the board that she grew up in the country where she was taught freedom.
"Look at the people around you," she said.
She was referring to the standing room only crowd, many of whom were wearing neon yellow shirts with "Mr. Kirksey for CMS Principal" in purple lettering.
Shore went on to speak about Kirksey and what he meant to her.
"He has been one of the most important men — people in general — in my life," she said.
Shore ended by saying, "I don't think you have the right to close the hearing or to tell us what we can or cannot say."
She was referring to Kirksey's personnel hearing, which was scheduled for Aug. 16, but has been postponed to a later date.
Shore was one of three Camdenton students who took the opportunity to address the board.
"We have been taught by administration to be leaders, not followers," student Natalie Sales said. She added that only being allowed to speak about what is on the agenda is "not fair."
Page 2 of 4 - Because it is board policy not to speak about personnel matters in the public meeting, the Kirksey situation was not on the agenda. According to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Camdenton School district investigated allegations of mishandling during the spring MAP testing.
Based on the findings of the investigation, the district placed Kirksey on paid leave. Since the allegations involved a personnel issue, school district officials have declined to publicly discuss the allegations. That has upset some patrons of the district and prompted them to form a group they have named "Kirksey Krusaders."
Natalie's mother, Mindi Sales, the spearhead of the group, expressed her concern with the current policy.
"There are things that us, as patrons, want to talk to you about and I want to talk to you in a board meeting," she said. "We still need to feel like you want to hear from us."
Goldammer addressed her concern with allowing patrons to speak about something that is not on the agenda and allowing a 'open mic' situation. Due to the Sunshine law, the board cannot speak or make a decision about something new that was not on the agenda since the public was not notified that it would be brought up. Most of the time patrons that have a concern want an answer. If they speak and do not get that right away, Goldammer said that could create a problem. It also opens up the possibility of defamation of character. Camdenton's current policy does not allow a grievance or negative comment to be made about a staff person, but Goldammer said that could allow for viewpoint discrimination. If negative comments are not allowed, positive ones should not be either.
"If you allow people to speak favorably about an employee, you have to allow them to speak unfavorably," Goldammer said.
Goldammer did find many parts of Camdenton's current policy to be positive and useful.
The board made a unanimous decision to table the discussion on the public commenting policy so that they could research other policies and really think about what is best for the district. The board is also open to hosting listening posts or public hearings outside of board meetings.
What others had to say...
A total of eight patrons spoke during Monday night's board meeting. Jason Whittle kicked off the public comment portion of the meeting. He told the board that he grew up in the lake area and is proud to be a laker. Soon, he will have six Lakers in the district and truly believes Camdenton R-III is a well functioning district. He asked the board to be thoughtful about Kirksey's upcoming hearing and to open it if possible to let the patrons know all the facts.
Page 3 of 4 - Along with students Sophie Shore and Natalie Sales, Malia Thompson spoke. "You are the board and you do not see what is going on in the school," she said.
Thompson told the board that her mother has had many foster children and that Kirksey has helped each of them that have attended the middle school.
"I don't know if any of our words are breaking through, I hope they are," Thompson said. "I believe Kirksey is the best interest for the children."
Bill Seib spoke to the board on the topic of perception. He focused on particular situations such as ACLU, Race to the Top, discord among the board and more that allowed the public to have a negative perception of the school district. He along with many of the other speakers believed Kirksey's hearing should be open.
"We are not violating his rights because he is requesting it," Seib said.
Two individuals were on the agenda to speak during the public commenting policy section.
Joan Michaelree said that the board "keeps shutting us down."
She added that the policy that allows only agenda items must stop. She believes patrons should be allowed to bring up any item that may be of concern no matter if it is on the agenda.
"As a taxpayer, this really irks me," Joan Michaelree said. "Show us by actions not empty words that you do want to hear from us."
Chris Michaelree was also on the agenda. He spoke of is thoughts on the public comment portion. He also accused the board and administrators of breaking their own policies.
Chris Michaelree said, "If you remove it [public comment portion of the agenda], it shows how secretive you are."
How we got here...
It is appears that the controversy over Kirksey stems from but is not limited to the MAP testing allegations that were discovered in June 2013.
June 12, 2013- A letter was sent to district personnel from Superintendent Tim Hadfield saying that a middle school teacher and building administrator (Sean Kirksey) were put on administrative leave. This happened following MAP testing cheating allegations.
June 18, 2013- Lake Sun received documents outlining the allegations from DESE.
•Teacher gave examples of similar problems to help students.
•Some students were given extra time on the timed portion of the test.
•Students were told to keep information about helping them a secret.
•Teacher told the students she had read the MAP test and knew the answers.
•Teacher pointed out questions that were wrong by shaking her head "no."
Page 4 of 4 - •At the end of testing, students were asked to flip through test booklets so she could check their work.
•An untrained person was allowed to monitor MAP testing per the building principal's request.
•An untrained person transported test booklets per the building principal's request.
•The building principal proctored the test instead of monitoring the building's hallways during test time.
July 2013- Dr. Paula Brown was named interim middle school principal.
July 25, 2013- DESE completed their investigation and found two breaches of security: DESE officials said that evidence was found that students were allowed extra time and that the principal divided the 7th grade Communication Arts test over two days when it was supposed to be a one-day test.