For over a year now a group of concerned citizens has been actively seeking the truth about decisions made at the Laurens County Board of Education. It all began with a plan to build 2 middle schools on the west side of Laurens County. The vote by board members a couple of months ago to not go through with the facilities plan to build 2 new schools was a welcome relief to the majority of Laurens County. That relief was short lived after a board member brought it back up at a called meeting on September 2nd and called for the board to go back to the facilities plan for 2 new schools. The weeks following that decision saw a group of citizens unite in a lawsuit against the Laurens County Board of Education stating that the board had violated their rights under the Georgia Open Meetings Act because the board had not advertised nor was it on the agenda that there would be a discussion and vote on two new middle schools. The suit called for that meeting and vote to be “void”.
Last Minute Changes…Legal or Illegal?
Further controversy arose when the Superintendent made changes to the Agenda that was advertised and posted for the September 18th Board Meeting merely 24 hours before the meeting. Citizens throughout the county began calling and emailing to have their names added to the Agenda so that they could voice concerns about the change to “revisit the vote on the facilities plan yet again”. ALL of those requests were denied with the Superintendent referring to a “policy” that stated you must make requests 5 days in advance to be added to an Agenda. Calls to board members were in support of having people added to the agenda because the change was not advertised until the day before the meeting therefore not giving citizens an opportunity to even know it would be discussed. But the superintendent under direction of the chairman maintained that this would not be allowed.
“We want public input”….HOGWASH!
It reached a boiling point when my request that had been made on Monday after the boards Work Session was denied by the Superintendent as well (rather odd timing since it took him 3 days to decide I could not speak). I questioned the superintendent on how he could possibly deny my request when it was made after the work session and reminded him that the “5 day rule” did not exist. (See attached board policy on audience participation) He maintained that the board did discuss a 5 day rule in June, which they did. However, at that time the Board Chairman, Mr. Clements, heard concerns from Board Member Elect Brenda Hilton and others that it was impossible for citizens to give 5 days notice when the boards work sessions were held on Mondays. The Chairman was asked if the policy could be changed to 3 days or after the work session. The chairman stated that was a reasonable request and shouldn’t be a problem. The board members shaking their head in agreement making it clear to everyone at the meeting that you would need to give a 3 day notice to be added to the Agenda. And citizens have been following the 3 day rule since that meeting. Nothing else was ever stated or heard about a “5 day rule” until yesterday morning when the board worked diligently to silence the citizens of Laurens County. The superintendent and the chairman maintained the rule was in fact a policy even after being reminded of the audio from the meeting in June. Requests were made by citizens to see the policy signed by all 5 board members which stated that you had to give 5 days notice before being added to the agenda but it could not be made available because they did not have one. Citizens were outraged as was I that our rights were again being violated by a board who maintains they “want public input”.
East Laurens residents tired of taking “SCRAPS”!
The Board Meeting was standing room only as citizens gathered to hear what the board planned to do and to see what startling revelation would be next. Attorneys for both the citizens who filed the lawsuit as well as the board’s attorney were also present. Mr. Clements stated whom would be allowed to speak during audience participation and Ms. Lena Davis spoke on behalf of citizens from the East Laurens School District siting how old their schools were and how close in proximity to some of the same hazards that the West Laurens Middle School Campus is. She reminded them that Mr. DeLoach hasn’t toured their campuses to look for the same hazards and citizens of the East side of the county were not going to continue supporting more SPLOST’s if things continued as they were. She believes, as do many others, that if the county is going to build 2 new schools one should be an East Laurens Middle School and a West Laurens Middle School. She reminded the board that East Laurens Middle School and East Laurens High School share “one school” and even have to share a lunchroom. She brings up a good point. If the board is concerned with the safety of all the students in Laurens County why wasn’t a geological survey of ALL campuses conducted….oh wait, I know why. Because the only reason the survey was ever done was because they wanted the campus of West Laurens Middle School deemed unsafe so they could carry out this asinine plan for two schools that will cost approximately 50 million dollars!
Tim Passmore’s demotion still a HOT TOPIC!
Ms. Brenda Hilton, Board Member Elect, addressed the board next. She stressed that the citizens of Laurens County had lost all respect for this board since they made the decision to demote Tim Passmore from the Financial Director position because he didn’t support the building of 2 new middle schools on the west side of the county because our system can’t afford them. She also said that the current board members were trying to get the 2 schools pushed through because they knew when she and Board Member Elect Kathy Sweat took office in January that they “would listen to what the citizens in Laurens County wanted”. She also had strong words for Board Member Britt Parker siting that he accused her of lying during the September 2nd board meeting. Both Hilton and Davis were applauded after addressing the board. Let me add that the only reason this board gave for demoting Mr. Passmore was that “they had lost confidence in him”. Really? That’s strange considering they are CURRENTLY USING HIS PROPOSED BUDGET AND IT IS PROVING TO BE 100% ACCURATE! Including his projection of a $500,000.00 DEFICIT! Since when do you use the work of a financial director whom you do not have confidence in to do his job?
I approached the board as Ms. Hilton was returning to her seat and the Chairman, Mr. Clements, told me I was not on the Agenda to address the board at this time. I asked him if he was denying my right as a citizen of Laurens County under the Open Meetings Act to address the board. He stated again that I was “not on the agenda” and hadn’t requested to be added within the 5 day policy. I reminded the chairman that I had in fact requested in writing to be placed on the Agenda on Monday after the work session. He maintained the board had a 5 day policy and I also reminded him that the policy was “3 days” and that the 5 day policy he was referring to had never been tabled for 30 days or voted on nor had it been signed by all of the board members. Obviously this board (at least some of them) could care less about citizens rights or legal/ethical decision making because when I asked him (and told him to smile for the camera) if he wished to stand by his “decision” and again was told I wasn’t on the agenda. And I was not allowed to speak on the topic I had questions about (which, by the way, had nothing to do with the 2 school issue).
The chairman then asked for a motion to go into Executive Session to discuss “personnel” and I asked (from my seat) if they would be signing an affidavit to the that fact. The chairman, who clearly, was more than a little angry, told me that “we comply with the law and we don’t need you to tell us whether we are or not”. To which I replied obviously they did. Because one thing is for certain, after the Chairman’s responses during the meeting he most certainly appears to have no understanding of the laws regarding board issues.
Admission of guilt?
After the Executive Session the board continued with the rest of the meeting. Dr. Rowe addressed those in attendance by stating that “we checked with our attorney Phil Hartley and he is of the opinion that we did nothing wrong, illegal or morally unethical in our vote on September 2nd. But, I will make a motion to rescind our facility vote from September 2nd.” The motion was seconded by Kenny Payne and the only discussion on the motion was a statement from Sam Beall that “we did get legal advice saying we didn’t do anything illegal. That’s all I would like to say.” I find the wording in Dr. Rowe’s statement a little unsettling. He says their attorney is of the OPINION they have done nothing wrong. That is not the same thing as saying the board HAS NOT done anything wrong especially morally or ethically. The vote was unanimous. Very interesting considering certain board members have stated they would NEVER vote against the facilities plan for 2 schools.
There is no doubt in most anyone’s mind that this board has most certainly done several things that could be called ethically and morally wrong. And obviously a prominent attorney has seen proof of possible illegal actions as well or he would not have taken a case and filed the suit against the board. The real question in everyone’s mind is obviously why did the board rescind the vote if they had, in fact, not done anything wrong. They are not answering that question….yet. But for now, citizens of Laurens County can breathe a sigh of relief that for now we are spared the 50 million dollars debt this board was so hasty to get us into. When interviewed after the meeting about what I thought about the vote I simply stated, “I believe it’s an admission of guilt, without an admission of guilt”. What else could you say given the fact that the vote was unanimous. Do you really think they just “changed their minds”. Of course they didn’t but hey if it makes them feel better, so be it.
Democracy or dictatorship
The bigger picture here is that this board purportedly continues to violate citizens rights under the Open Meetings Act and GA Sunshine Laws. There is no “5 day policy” on the board’s EBoard page with their policies and procedures. But perhaps more alarming is the fact that this board repeatedly changes the Agenda at the last minute. And let’s not forget about all the called meetings they have. Can they really say it is ethical or legal to deny people the right to speak at meetings unless they request to do so 5 days in advance when many meetings aren’t even known about until 24 hours in advance. If this pattern continues it will allow this board to simply wait until the 5 day mark has passed and change the Agenda thus silencing Laurens County citizens. Even more compelling was a statement from the superintendent that speaking at the meetings is more of a “chain of command” issue. So, in other words, we want you to come to us first and if we don’t want you to speak on the topic you’re asking about then we wont’ allow you to be placed on the agenda. Really? Is this board under the impression that we’re in a democracy or a dictatorship?