Accusations, anger fly at school board meeting

Anyone who missed the July 4 fireworks could just as easily have gotten their fix by attending Tuesday's board meeting of the Hackberry Elementary School District.

The board had met to discuss adopting the budget for the 2009-2010 school year, as well as repair of the school's computer and phone system and possible action for a bus driver who was terminated in March. Throughout the meeting, however, the discussions were interrupted by frequent outbursts and walkouts from the audience of about 25 parents, volunteers, ex-employees and former board members.

The first such interruption came during a public hearing on the budget, where parent and former teacher's aide Ellen Kelley attempted to ask how much money was being spent on the investigation of Cedar Hills Principal Brad Ellico, who has been on paid, non-disciplinary administrative leave since mid-March.

"That has nothing to do with the budget," replied board President Laurie Lawson. "It has nothing to do with the authority of how much money we can spend, which is what a budget is, and you should know that."

The budget authorization passed with little further conflict, but before the board could proceed to the actual adoption, former board president Jeri Tribuzio spoke up, asking why there was no call to the public slated for the meeting.

Lawson replied that, since the budget was the primary reason for the meeting, the public hearing should have sufficed as a means of soliciting public input.

"We'd like to talk about how you're spending the money," Tribuzio said.

"That's not appropriate for this meeting," Lawson replied.

Another audience member asked when a call to the public would be placed on the agenda. "Not this meeting," Lawson said. "Maybe at the next meeting we'll have a call to the public."

"Really?" the audience member asked.

"Maybe," Lawson said. "It is in the (district) policy, but it's not an Arizona law that we have a call to the public."

Sparks flew later in the meeting when the board cleared the meeting room to enter a 95-minute executive session to discuss Walker's employment. As the session wore on, Tribuzio circulated a letter around the lobby asking audience members to oppose Walker's further employment, claiming that the bus driver had been in several accidents while transporting children for the school.

Upon reconvening, Lawson made a motion to compensate Walker for 30 days from March 6 to April 6, which the board approved unanimously. She then made a second motion to table Walker's reinstatement until the district can obtain legal advice on what to do. That motion also passed 3-0.

The board then considered whether or not to hear a series of grievances that had been filed by several ex-employees who had been fired earlier in the year. Lawson said that, because the grievances involved employment issues, they did not fall under accepted grievable offenses. She added that the former employees who had filed the grievance had failed to follow proper procedure, which required them to air their grievances with a school administrator first. If they felt their grievances were still unaddressed, only then could they file a clear, concise written appeal with the board.

Further, Lawson noted that the names on the grievance were the same names on a lawsuit currently pending against the district. In lieu of the current legal action, she said, she felt no reason to address the grievances.

"Policy wasn't followed, and they're all on the lawsuit, so I don't think we need to add them as grievances," she said. "They can't even file a grievance since (policy) says it wasn't even a grievable offense."

Board member Rick Mauldin agreed that considering the grievances could have a significant impact on the district's pending litigation, and he seconded Lawson's motion to not hear the grievances, and the motion passed 3-0.

Shortly thereafter, Kelley raised her hand to ask why the board had not agendized a packet of questions she had submitted asking various questions regarding the Ellico investigation.

"I'm sorry, we're not taking questions," Lawson said.

"I want to know where the packet is that I turned in last month that was tabled to this meeting." Kelley said. "I turned it in, it was supposed to be on this meeting. You purposely did not put it on there."

Kelley then stormed out of the chamber's back door, issuing the parting shot, "I know the game you're playing, Lawson."

The agenda then moved to the district's ailing phone and computer system. Lawson said she had spoken to the county's chief investigator, Terry Flanagan, who found that Qwest Communications had been contacting the school district for the past four years warning that the phone system was outdated and required substantial upgrades.

"They don't even have the ability to repair the phone system anymore, since it's so antiquated," Lawson said. "The system hasn't been updated, and now it's broken."

Interim administrator Emmett Brown added that the computer system had apparently been broken into. This elicited derisive laughter from several audience members and led the district's former IT technician, Theresa Hale, to flatly declare the statement a lie.

"I don't know why this is funny," Brown said. "It is funny only because there has been some real, concerted effort to keep the school from opening. That's exactly what the concerted effort has been. Who's doing it, I don't know; and I don't even really care, but there has been some effort to do that."

Lawson made a motion to direct Brown to get three quotes for the cost of reconfiguring the computer and phone systems. Naomi Barholz seconded, and the motion passed unanimously. The board later approved a second motion to direct Brown to gather quotes for the cost of rekeying all the school's locks as well.

The meeting adjourned at 8:12, nearly three hours after it had begun. Even after the meeting, however, audience members continued to exchange accusations with the board members and Brown, leading Barholz to summarize her disgust with the board's treatment from the public.

"I think it's a shame the way the public is treating this board," she said. "I took this job for the children and for no other reason. I'm sorry you people feel the way you feel about your new board, but let us have our chance."