Earlier this year, I wrote about the conduct of the Montgomery County School Board chair, Marti Graham, specifically the inappropriate use of her position to limit public discussion on the hotly debated issue of increasing in-person instruction.
In my opinion, Ms. Graham once again misused her position at the most recent work session to level a brutal personal attack on a parent volunteer appointed by the school board to serve on their Gifted Advisory Committee and elected by the members of that committee to serve as their Chair.
Ms. Graham was supposed to provide an update on the progress of the Gifted Advisory Committee, but instead delivered her personal assessment of the performance of the outgoing committee chair. Although this person was a parent volunteer, not an employee, Section 2.2-3711.A.1 of the Code of Virginia is clear that discussion of the performance of public appointees is covered under the same closed session protections as the discussion of an employee’s performance.
The purpose of the closed session provision is to protect the rights of the individual and the liability of the governing body. By attacking the performance of the chair in an open public meeting, Ms. Graham not only violated this individual’s rights, but also exposed the school board to the risk of a lawsuit.
Following Ms. Graham’s update, District G school board member Mark Cherbaka, who had also been following the progress of the committee, questioned the purpose of the attack and said he could not “let that report stand.” Graham also set a dangerous precedent for how parent volunteers may be treated by the school board in the future.
Mr. Cherbaka stated, “I take offense at this, and I hope that it doesn’t discourage other parents from getting involved” and further added, “I’ve got a real problem with the personal takedown of parents who we’ve asked to volunteer on these committees”.
Having served as a parent volunteer for over 15 years, including as an appointee to the Blacksburg High School Building Committee, and as a former school board member, I agree with Mr. Cherbaka’s concerns, and the effect Ms. Graham’s actions could have on an organization that relies heavily on volunteers.
District B representative Penny Franklin then spoke up and directly refuted several of Ms. Graham’s statements. Ms. Franklin referenced a phone call between herself, Ms. Graham, and the committee chair, stating, “I heard a lot of stuff that I hadn’t heard before and I made a public apology to that committee”. She went on to say, “I believe there was more going on than what was just being reported” and added “I hadn’t gotten the full story until I was hearing from both sides”.
It’s also worth noting that the former committee chair did not seek that position in the recent committee officer elections, but she was elected as the new vice chair. If her performance was as stated by Ms. Graham, then why did the committee entrust her with a similar position?
Ms. Franklin’s comments were followed by something that concerns me even further, which was the dead silence from the other three board members present at the meeting. Those members were Gunin Kiran (District A), a two-term member and former chair; Jamie Bond (District D), a four-term member; and Dana Partin (District C), a one-term member. Their inaction served to condone Ms. Graham’s actions.
The failure of these three board members to recognize the severity of Ms. Graham’s actions and the repercussions those actions could have for the school board and Montgomery County Public Schools is a failure to carry out their duties to protect the rights of their appointees and to shield the school board from a potential lawsuit. Their message to parents is “Volunteer at your own risk”.
In my view, the only way the school board could remedy this situation now would be to follow Ms. Franklin’s lead by publicly apologizing to the former committee chair and the other committee members. Furthermore, the school board should consider a censure of Ms. Graham and possible removal from the chair position for exposing the board and MCPS to unnecessary risk and liability. As I stated previously, Ms. Graham continues to misuse the chair position and should not be entrusted with that power.
Froggatt is a former vice chairwoman of the Montgomery County School Board.