Voice vote held for spots after objections to secret ballot in Elizabethton School Board meeting

John Thompson • Dec 11, 2012 at 10:20 PM

ELIZABETHTON — The Elizabethton School Board is once again showing signs of its traditional 3-2 split that has been one of the main features of the board for more than a decade.

In the only vote in which all five members came together to vote, the old pattern re-emerged with Catherine Armstrong and Connie Baker joining together to vote in the minority, while two new board members, Grover May and Phil Isaacs, joining Chairman Rita Booher in voting in the majority.

Tuesday night’s meeting should have been routine, with only a few resolutions written by the Tennessee School Board Association highlighting a sparse agenda.

But the meeting began with what has become a controversy on how the board chose Booher as chairwoman and Isaacs as vice chairman last month. The board had done the voting by secret ballot in front of the public.

That procedure has led to allegations of a violation of the Sunshine Law. New board member May said the suggestion to hold a secret ballot was made to help board members “vote their conscience” but he realized “some of us were new members and some of us may not have been aware of the nuances (of the Sunshine Law).”

May said he believed the vote was an accurate and legal vote, but he suggested the members look at the ballots and place their signed names next to their vote. He felt sure the members could recognize their own handwriting.

Baker said she preferred a voice vote. May and Isaacs said they were agreeable to that procedure and Booher and Issacs were once again elected. May suggested that since the minutes had not yet been approved, the board had not yet approved the secret ballot method. He recommended an amendment to last month’s minutes reflecting the board’s latest action.

The revote had forced Booher to rise from her sick bed. She asked the other board members to excuse her after the vote because she was recovering from surgery performed a week ago.

“My doctor is not going to be happy with this,” Booher said of her decision to attend the first few minutes of the meeting. She then recessed the meeting and left Isaacs in charge of the rest of the session.

Most of the decisions over the rest of the meeting were approved even though the body now stood at four members.

The board approved three resolutions from the Tennessee School Board Association calling on the General Assembly to support some key public school issues.

These included a statement that the Elizabethton School Board opposed any legislation to create a statewide or alternate authorizer of charter schools that would bypass locally elected school board; and a resolution opposing the use of public education funds to support a voucher program that would divert money from public education to private education. These two resolutions passed by a 4-0 vote.

Armstrong was the lone opponent in another resolution, calling on the legislature to continue support for school boards to select directors of schools rather than have them elected.

“I always have backed the election of superintendents. I like the idea of the superintendent looking out for the people,” she said.

May said one problem with elected superintendents was it restricted the talent pool to local officials, instead of doing a broader search for the most talented individual.

There was more controversy at the end of the meeting, when Armstrong said a woman from WJHL-TV came to her door with an anonymous letter written to the station criticizing Armstrong about the decision several months ago by a donor to withdraw a $2 million grant that would have helped with building a new stadium and additional classrooms at T.A. Dugger Jr. High.

Armstrong said the anonymous letter was supposed to have been written by a board member. She asked if anyone had written the anonymous letter. No one on the board admitted authorship.

“I still don’t know who wrote the letter. I am not accusing you of anything,” Armstrong said. “Did you write the letter?” she asked Superintendent Ed Alexander.

“No ma’am,” Alexander said. “I don’t have time for that.”

“I felt like someone is targeting me and accusing me of something I had no knowledge of,” Armstrong said. “Its not my fault. I had nothing to do with it. It had not been discussed in a board meeting.”

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