A Wichita school board member is speaking out against what she says is a culture of bullying, intimidation and closed-door dealings among some board members.
Joy Eakins, in an opinion piece sent to The Eagle, said some school board members “attack others that aren’t in lockstep with their views,” including parents, and that they have used private meetings to “control the message before it goes to the public.”
Eakins says she decided to go public with her concerns after some school board candidates recently alleged that the board conducts too much of its business without public discussion and debate.
“We need to change some things on the board, and the only way we’re going to change them is if somebody is willing to stand up and say what’s happening out loud,” Eakins said.
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“The way things are working and operating right now is bad for the staff, it’s bad for the students and it’s bad for the board. If somebody doesn’t speak up and tell the truth, then nothing’s going to change.”
Board member Lynn Rogers said Eakins’ allegations are an undeserved attack on the board’s integrity.
“I don’t think there would be very many other board members who feel that way,” Rogers said.
“I’ve disagreed with nearly every board member I’ve ever served with at one time or another,” he said. “If you don’t succeed, you don’t revert to name calling and accusations. I don’t think that’s fair, it’s not right, and it’s a huge attack on our integrity.”
Eakins, who was elected in 2013 and is not seeking re-election, often has been a lone dissenting vote on the board.
In 2015, she voted against a $60 million contract to build a new Southeast High School, voicing frustration over unanswered questions and a behind-the-scenes process she called “very disconcerting.”
Last year, Eakins voted against a measure to trim 15 days from the school year and make the school day longer, arguing that the district should instead outsource custodial services. She also has voiced concerns over low test scores, and she was the only board member who favored the Kansas Legislature’s action to move local elections from spring to fall.
In her letter, Eakins said some board members believe “that everyone should be on the same page and agree all the time.” Some board members have told her “that a vote of 6-1 or 5-2 is harmful – even dangerous,” she wrote.
Parents who approach the board with concerns are treated similarly, Eakins said. She said parents who lobbied for more recess in elementary schools last year were later instructed by then-president Betty Arnold that they could observe but not speak during meetings of a superintendent’s advisory committee on heath and wellness.
“Many of the issues that come before the Board do not have clear cut answers,” Eakins wrote. “Good leaders in a community should want to hear all the sides of the issue and promote an accessible, trustworthy process that allows ideas to be passionately discussed and vetted.”
Arnold, who is running for re-election in District 1, said Thursday that she was “surprised and saddened” by Eakins’ comments. Arnold said the board welcomes diverse opinions and that Eakins has not approached her directly with concerns about board protocol or procedures.
“I would have loved it, had this been a concern of Joy’s, if she would have said, ‘You know what? I’d like to sit down and talk with you, because I have some issues,’” Arnold said.
“If these are valid concerns, why would you wait until you are no longer going to serve on the board to make that public?” she said. “If you wait until the end of your journey and want to write your memoirs, but you get nothing along the way, where’s your credibility?”
Eakins declared earlier this year that she would not seek a second term on the board. Three candidates – Julie Hedrick, Trish Hileman and Debra Washington – are running for her District 2 seat.
Eakins also challenged the board’s use of private, small-group meetings, during which board members meet with the superintendent or other district leaders prior to public meetings to ask questions about upcoming agenda items.
The so-called “three-by-three” meetings, which became an issue during a process to close schools and redraw boundaries in 2012, “provide little opportunity for Board members to hear the opinions of their peers” before voting, Eakins wrote.
“This patchwork of meetings creates opportunity for mistrust between members and mistakes in communication,” she wrote.
Arnold said she doesn’t believe that all board votes should be unanimous or that board members shouldn’t bring up concerns in public.
“I did share one time with Joy about how the board works,” Arnold said. “I said to her, ‘It doesn’t matter how great your idea is if three other board members don’t agree,’ which means you’ve got to have at least four votes. So it’s good to build relationships with the board.”
Arnold said she was “baffled” by Eakins’ criticism.
“I honestly can’t figure out where she’s coming from,” she said. “If you feel that something is genuinely wrong and you have been elected to that position, you don’t wait four years to say something. You have a responsibility to the people that elected you to be honest.”
Eakins said Thursday that she struggled with the decision to make her concerns public.
“In the past I’ve thought maybe I could work through the system and make changes quietly and just continue to push,” she said. “Recently we’ve started to talk about transparency as a board, and that conversation has been quickly sidelined.”
She said she hopes her comments spark a renewed commitment to public discussion and debate.
“I don’t want this to be a list of things that have been done to me or to other board members,” she said. “I want this to be: This is what’s happening, and I want to change it. There are systematic changes we need to make and also some attitude changes we need to make.”