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Debate over school board vacancy consumes meeting

"We're not going to stay silent any longer, this time we're going to speak back," said School Board chairperson Glenda Huff as public comments were set to begin during Thursday's meeting which was moved from the Board of Education to Latonia Elementary. Nearly every candidate seeking a seat on the Covington School Board in November was on hand with several present to criticize the board's attorney, Mary Ann Stewart, for what they claim was a mishandling of the proper way to fill the seat vacated by Denise Varney who submitted her resignation August 2.
State statute indicates that because Varney had more than a year left in her term, which expires in 2014, and because her resignation was submitted before the filing deadline of the next general election, that the seat should have been placed on November's ballot. Stewart contends that the errors were made in Frankfort by the Kentucky Department of Education.
"The local school board does not have the legal authority to act on a member's resignation," Stewart said, addressing the crowd at the beginning of the meeting saying she wanted to address what she called misinformation floating around the community. She also addressed the implication that she deliberately blocked an election for Varney's seat. "I have not advocated for or against nor have I taken any action against anyone's candidacy," she said. "My duty to the best of my ability is to ensure that all members are serving in a legal capacity."

The turmoil started on August 14, the filing deadline for candidates to appear on the ballot for November's school board election in which three of five seats are up for grabs. While ten candidates filed to run for those three seats, an eleventh candidate, Mark Young, attempted to file to run for Varney's unexpired seat. While initially rejected by the County Clerk's office, Young was added as the sole candidate for Varney's seat the following day. Over the course of the next week it was determined that Varney's seat was not officially vacant until August 21 when Kentucky Commissioner of Education Terry Holliday formally accepted the resignation, seven days after the filing deadline. Young is no longer on the ballot, though he is suing to have that decision reversed with the help of attorney Brandon Voelker who represents the Newport School Board and who has also been publicly critical of Stewart.

"Frankly, his public and negative comments aimed at me have been surprising and disappointing," Stewart said during her prepared remarks. She added that the last time Covington went through a vacancy on its school board, Voelker also represented the man who wanted to serve. That was after the 2006 election when Paul Mullins was elected but was determined by the Kentucky Attorney General to be ineligible because Mullins worked as a bus driver in the district at the time of the election. Mullins was replaced by the appointment of Jerry Avery who still serves, but was absent Thursday.
Though Voelker was not present at Thursday's meeting, several candidates for school board were and shared their own thoughts about what should happen to Stewart. Calling it a "fiasco" and an "embarrassment", Mark Young requested that the school board terminate Stewart's contract. Candidate Tom Miller called the issue a failure on the part of legal counsel. "I urge you to terminate the contract with (Stewart's) firm (Adams, Stepner, Wolterman, and Dusing)," he said.

Candidate Everett Dameron was critical of the amount of money set aside in the school district's budget for legal representation: more than $150,000. "The public needs to know how we spend more money for an attorney than any district in the state," Dameron said, saying that there is a $120,000 difference between Covington and similarly-sized districts. "That's money that could be used in the classroom to support the education of our children."

The harshest criticism came from candidate Jo Rogers. "Mrs. (Superintendent Lynda) Jackson was wrong and the board attorney failed to correct her," Rogers said. At the school board's August 9 meeting Rogers asked how Varney's seat would be filled and was told about the appointment process, but the possibility of an election to fulfill the remainder of the term was not mentioned. The district contends that the Kentucky Department of Education indicated that an election would not apply in this case and moved forward with publicizing the vacancy in order to solicit applicants for the appointment. Rogers argued that it was because Stewart either did not know the law, did not understand the law, or did not want voters to have a say in who fills the vacancy. After Rogers's allotted time had expired, another member of the public slated to speak yielded her two minutes so that Rogers could continue.

"We're sitting here talking about Kentucky revised statutes and we have children in this district who cannot read in the third grade, we have kids in fifth grade at John G. Carlisle who are not taking science class," Rogers said. "This district needs help and we're arguing about statutes."

"It sounds like we accepted a resignation but we didn't inhale," said Covington City Commissioner Steve Frank who addressed the board to argue that the city is losing young people, a fact he at least partially blamed on the school district.

Young, Dameron, Miller, and Rogers are all active members of an online community dubbed Fix Covington Schools where the school district and its employees are regularly criticized. Several other members of that online group were present at Thursday night's meeting, some breaking protocol and shouting criticism out of turn and loudly applauding at the end of various public statements. The online community has been active for several months and the frustration it has caused members of the school board and the district's administration was obvious Thursday night. As promised, Chairperson Glenda Huff spoke back, first by asking the school board candidates in the crowd to stand up, and then by making the same request to the district employees in attendance.
"The staff members you just saw are people you are going to be working with, not for," said Huff, who is seeking reelection. "The comments made on social media hurt. The staff standing up work endless hours to take care of the students. If you like to criticize but you don't want answers, think of the people you are hurting. A child hears this garbage and will go to school the next day defeated. Please remember this, there is more to Covington Independent than test scores. Behind those test scores are children and behind those children are staff members who care about our children. So when you are typing your words, remember that there are faces behind those words."

Board member Krista Powers, who is not seeking reelection, also expressed frustration. "This mess is a mess, and it's really, really sad and disappointing as a board member that this is what we're spending time on," she said. "You're not hearing the various viewpoints shared by the board attorney. Lynda (Jackson) went straight to the powers that be (in Frankfort) and we didn't get good guidance. I'm frustrated with KDE that this board and this superintendent have been accused of being involved in this election."

Huff shot down any possibility of ending Stewart's contract. "This board is very comfortable with our legal counsel, very happy," she said. "We don't have any plans of changing that. There is more to sitting in (the attorney's) seat for one or two hours a month that you folks don't understand."

"It seems we understand a lot more than you want us to," said Sandy Arnold, a former volunteer at Sixth District Elementary School who moved her kids out of Covington Schools this year. "I hope your constituents remember that when they go into the voting booth."
Written by Michael Monks