It took several rounds of voting, as well as a question about transparency, before the Indian River School District Board of Education selected a new president and vice president for this year. On Aug. 3, Rodney Layfield stepped up to be the new board president for the district, as Leolga Wright took his place as the new vice president.

Before choosing their leaders, the school board first voted 9-1 to use secret ballot for those positions (with dissent from Board Member Gerald “Jerry” Peden Jr.).

“I think people should be accountable for their actions, so I have no problem taking a vote by roll call — so they don’t hide behind their votes,” Peden said afterward, discussing transparency. “I’m accountable for my actions in public session. If we take a vote by roll call, I have no problem telling people how I voted.” But once the board decided otherwise, he said, “I support that decision.”

In 1977, the Delaware Freedom of Information ACT (FOIA) declared that “All voting on public business must take place at a public meeting and the results of the vote made public.” Meeting minutes must have “a record, by individual members … of each vote taken and action agreed upon” (Title 29, Chap. 100).

IRSD Superintendent Jay Owens, after the Aug. 3 meeting, acknowledged the question of whether anonymous ballots fit into Delaware law.

“We recognize there may have been an issue there. So, we’re looking at how we can move forward with that. … I’m basically taking the lead with it at the district level, making the attorney aware,” Owens said. “We’re looking into it very closely.”

The IRSD Board of Education has historically used secret written ballots for contested elections of their executive officers. On Aug. 3, Owens instead recommended doing a verbal vote.

This being Owens’ first full month as superintendent, and his first time in leading board elections, he “wanted to do my due diligence to make sure we were running the meeting appropriately,” he said, so he had contacted the board’s attorney for input as to the legal procedure.

The attorney advised using a roll-call vote (although Owens said he had also heard that the board could continue with a secret ballot).

“I’ve had it with the attorneys telling us what we can do, against our own traditions,” said Board Member Donald Hattier, motioning to vote by anonymous ballot.

In this case, tradition might not fit with Delaware’s 1973 educational law that says that “a roll call vote of all board members on every motion or resolution shall be recorded as part of the minutes … and shall be considered a matter of public record” (Code Title 14, Chapter 10).

Less than a year ago, Delaware Attorney General reprimanded another district’s school board for using secret ballots. In October 2019, the Christina Board of Education was due to appoint a new member to fill a vacancy, selecting their winning candidate by anonymous balloting.

“A meeting … must be open to the public to allow citizens to observe the public body as it conducts its public business. A public body’s vote by secret ballot clearly subverts this requirement,” the AG’s Office said in response to an official complaint about that vote.

At the time of his interview with the Coastal Point this week, Hattier said he was not aware of IRSD receiving official complaints about the ballots, but he has twice said that if forced to do a voice vote, “Then they can basically count me out. Because this is a public decision on an elected official.”

He clarified the personal nature of publicizing this annual leadership vote, saying, “I think it’s wrong. And I think it blocks people from giving their opinion in a way that preserves everybody’s dignity.” He said he feels that board leadership decisions should be anonymous because, “This is how I vote for a president, for my council people, and I don’t think this should be any different.”

Although Hattier was speaking solely for himself, eight other board members voted similarly that night, with Peden the lone dissenter.

Mostly, the public elects the school board, but those 10 individuals choose their president and vice president, who will represent the entire district, sign off on certain documents and manage how board meetings are run.

At Indian River’s organizational meetings, it appears that private ballots have been used for (contested) board leadership positions for years. When necessary, the IR school board also appoints new members similarly to hiring employees: privately interviewing candidates in executive session and voting on “Candidate 2” instead of the name. They have previously used secret balloting for a contested board-member appointment (although a stalemate forced a role call in that case).

In November of 2019, the AG’s Office concluded that the Christina school board “violated FOIA by conducting a secret ballot vote,” “To comply with FOIA, we recommend that the board conduct a new vote by roll call … in a manner by which votes may be observed by the public and attributed to individual members.”

A tight race for president

With the school board having opted to continue its secret ballot tradition, it then took three tries for the board to choose their leadership for the 2020-2021 school year.

The first anonymous vote was tied, 5-5. The second vote was 5-4 in favor of Layfield over Wright, but he still had not obtained the necessary supermajority.

If there is no satisfactory election of a president, then the sitting vice president is often considered to be next in line for that role, Layfield said, and Hattier (who first nominated Wright) agreed with that interpretation.

However, “I think it’s our task here to make determination for president and vice president,” Owens advised, and the others agreed.

On the third anonymous vote, Layfield was officially elected president, 6-4.

Then Wright was quickly and unanimously elected vice president, by voice vote.

Beforehand, each nominee gave a brief statement of their desire to serve. Layfield (who represents IRSD’s District 2) has 10 years with the school board, at least half of which was as vice president, and he’s been a leader among IR committees for Comprehensive School Safety and Buildings & Grounds. He is a troop commander for the Delaware State Police and now takes the seat of longtime board president Charles “Charlie” Bireley.

Wright (District 3) said she wants to lead as IR faces a number of issues coming down the road, especially with her experience as a federal government employee (U.S. Department of Agriculture, retiring in upper management) and, now, with her having the time to dedicate to the position.

Candidates and construction

Four board members also took their oaths of office in August, one month later than usual, since school board elections were delayed under Delaware’s State of Emergency and COVID-19 precautions. They swore to uphold Delaware laws on public education; support the U.S. and Delaware constitutions; and exchange no votes for favors.

Beginning a five-year term were new members Leo J. Darmstadter III and Anthony Cannon (both District 1), and Constance “Connie” Pryor (District 5); and re-elected incumbent Peden (District 2).

This was the board’s first in-person meeting after several months of videoconferencing. The elected officials were spread out farther than usual, two seats per table.

“I felt comfortable. We were sociality distanced, we were wearing masks, so it was great to see everybody [although it was] a little different with the tables spread” and fewer audience members, Peden noted. He said he enjoyed watching the new board members take their oaths on stage, “just to see their emotions and smiles and see their eyes light up.”

Board members got right to work on Aug. 3. The IRSD will construct two new buildings in the coming years, and after two finalists were interviewed to design the new Sussex Central High School building, the school board chose ABHA/BSA+A (Buck Simpers Architect + Associates Inc.) of Wilmington.

“We think both of those companies were cream of the crop,” but were particularly impressed with ABHA’s presentation, and will continue using Fearn & Clendaniel Architects for the new Howard T. Ennis School, Layfield reported.

The recommendation came from an internal search committee, and the board vote was 6-0-4 (with abstentions from Hattier, Darmstadter, Peden and Pryor).

The IRSD Board of Education’s next regular monthly meeting will be Monday, Aug. 24, at 7 p.m.

Staff Reporter

Laura Walter is an award-winning reporter on schools, environment, people and history. A graduate of Indian River High School and Washington College, she has rappelled off a building and assisted a magician, and encourages readers to act on local issues.