IRSD board Aug 2020- Renee Jerns holding cell phone of JR Emanuele before Karen Blannard, Jay Owens and Rodney Layfield-LW.jpg (copy)

Renee Jerns holds a cell phone up to the microphone at the IRSD board meeting, to allow J.R. Emanuele to remotely address the board, including Board Members Karen Blannard, Jay Owens and Rodney Layfield. Layfield's election as board president was initially made through a controversial secret-ballot vote on Aug. 24. It was confirmed on voice vote this week.

Taking a second look at their decision to choose board leadership by secret ballot, the Indian River School District Board of Education took a new voice vote on Aug. 24.

But — the decision having already been made on Aug. 3 for President Rodney Layfield and Vice President Leolga Wright — the new vote was largely cosmetic and still did not reflect the initial votes cast.

The Aug. 24 voice vote for president was unanimous and did not reflect the internal debate that had previously occurred.

Earlier this month, at the annual organizational meeting, the board voted 9-1 to continue their typical use of secret ballots for the contested presidency (with dissent from Board Member Gerald “Jerry” Peden Jr.).

During the anonymous vote for the 2020-2021 leadership, the first vote had been tied, 5-5. The second vote was 5-4 in favor of Layfield over Wright. The third anonymous vote produced the deciding majority, 6-4.

The IRSD Board of Education has historically used secret written ballots for contested elections of their executive officers, which was partly a courtesy to fellow board members. On Aug. 3, Superintendent Jay Owens instead recommended doing a verbal vote. The district’s attorney advised using a roll-call vote, although the Delaware School Boards Association (DSBA) had suggested IRSD could continue with secret ballot since there’s a history of it.

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

“I think it’s wrong. And I think it blocks people from giving their opinion in a way that preserves everybody’s dignity,” Hattier later said of roll-call votes.

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

The Delaware Attorney General had reprimanded Christina School District Board of Education for using secret ballots in October of 2019 while appointing a new board member.

“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.

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). The 1977 Freedom of Information ACT (FOIA) also demands “a record, by individual members … of each vote taken and action agreed upon” (Title 29, Chap. 100).

“Whether we’re paid or not, according to the State of Delaware, we are listed as employees,” said Hattier on Aug. 24, later telling the Coastal Point that he even receives unwanted emails from the state’s HR department about retirement benefits and the like. “And if you’re going to have an employee vote, the slate should have been set up in an executive committee meeting, in which case, if you’re going to vote publicly, you vote for candidate A, B or C, which is how we vote for everything else [regarding personnel]. … I’ve tried to get that corrected for the entire time on my board.”

On Aug. 24, Wright was nominated by Heather Statler, and Layfield was nominated by Hattier (who had initially nominated Wright a few weeks prior).

This time, Wright rejected the presidential nomination, thereby deflecting any appearance of board fragmentation.

“We may not always agree, but in the end, I hope we’re going to do what’s best for our students and staff and the schools we represent, so transparency is fine with me. I don’t know if we did anything wrong that can be documented at this time,” Wright said.

“Because I think we have more pressing things at hand than the structure of this board … I believe it best serves the Indian River School District that we be able to move forward and be on the same page. We may not always agree, but we will take it in stride, and we will come back the next month and we will work for the benefit again,” Wright said, loosely referencing the difference of opinion that may arise during board votes, especially for something as personal as leadership votes.

Wright remained vice president without a new vote, since she had been elected to that role unanimously by voice vote on Aug. 3.

During public comments at an Aug. 20 meeting, resident Linda Teplica thanked the board for their service but rebuked their using a secret ballot.

“It is incompressible to me that you did so against your own attorney’s advice. … Regardless of tradition or personal preference, that vote should have been held by roll call. I believe that since you have been voted into this position, you’re not considered personnel and you’re not entitled to secret ballot process for voting. If you’re not going to be transparent and abide by the Freedom of Information Act, I am perplexed as to why you ran for this position,” she said.

She said board members make decisions for the sake of students and taxpayers, and she warned about lingering public mistrust in their transparency.

“How can you expect your students and staff to follow the rules when you don’t set an example?” Teplica concluded.

In other IRSD news:

• New IRSD teachers began orientation on Aug. 24, with all others returning Aug. 31.

“We had a wonderful day with professional development and new activities and welcomes for our new teachers,” Owens said. “We are excited to welcome new members to our team, and we are attempting to create an environment virally as traditional as we can with these events … despite the landscape that we’re in right now.”

• When it comes to finances, a stable reserve fund isn’t just desired for emergencies, but is required by the state. In the annual Financial Position Report, school districts must prove they have enough money set aside to pay salaries through October, when the bulk of property taxes will arrive to refill the coffers. IRSD pays about $2.75 million for monthly payroll, and the reserve fund is expected to hit the $15 million mark by October.

• The board unanimously passed second reading of Policy IGDF - Student Fundraising, which would require a Delaware Temporary Food Establishment Permit for groups that serve/sell food on school grounds for sporting events, family nights, fundraising events, etc., and also forbid food trucks from conducting business on any IRSD properties.

• Two tax-relief requests were unanimously approved, in which IRSD will waive interest fees in order to be paid the late property taxes owed from Sussex Countians.

• Plans continue for the two new school buildings. Bids are due on Oct. 15 for the new 94,500-square-foot Howard T. Ennis School. The ceremonial groundbreaking could still occur on Nov. 9.

• Administrative salary changes were approved for regular step increases, such as modifications to status or education. Layfield abstained from the vote. With this continuing, the staff union representative reminded the board that other employees are ready to begin negotiating their new contracts as well.

The IRSD Board of Education’s next regular monthly meeting will be Monday, Sept. 28, 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.