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Tension rises on Liberty Co. school board

Liberty County School Superintendent Dr. Valya Lee alleges she has been the victim of bullying and threats made by Board of Education member Marcus Scott IV.

Scott rejected those allegations.

A request under the Georgia Open Records Act filed by the Coastal Courier revealed that Lee sent a letter to Scott asking for the harassment to stop and another, along with a separate letter to the rest of the board asking for their help.

“On numerous occasions in board meetings and work sessions, through digital communication including email and text messages, I have been victimized by your bullying and threatening behavior and made to work in the hostile work environment created by your intimidation and harassment,” Lee wrote to Scott.

She wrote that through his actions, it appear he is intentionally hurting her professional reputation and career.

She referenced recent specific incidents that she perceived as intimidating behavior.

“On April 25, 2016, in correspondence to the Board chair, referenced ‘illegal’ activity by me regarding a flyer you requested I make. Further, you accused me ‘of telling Mrs. Baker and Mrs. Smith Carter’ about the request for me to make a flyer,” Lee wrote, referring to BOE Chairwoman Lily Baker and board Vice Chairwoman Carolyn Smith Carter.

Lee goes on to write that Scott speaks to her in a condescending manner, has threatened her livelihood, and will pursue litigation if his actions continue.

Scott said Lee’s accusations are not true.

“There’s no bullying on my part,” Scott said. “I’m just asking for information that I’m supposed to, that I promised my constituents that I would ask for, and I’m holding her accountable. I’m not bullying.”

In her letter to board members, Lee asks for the board to “implore Board Member Marcus Scott to cease and desist the subjectively abusive communication he engages in repeatedly to me.”

In a phone interview Thursday with the Courier, Lee said Scott’s actions have been ongoing and have started to affect her work.

“I spent a lot of time dealing with accusations and trying to justify and explain,” Lee said. “There have been any number of requests from me that I try to fulfill, but a lot of requests are coming from that individual member. When I’m not in a place to fill it, they start with a lot of verbal attacks, harassment, disrespect, etc.

“I reached the point where I thought, ‘I can no longer work like this.’ But I love my job, and the board is supposed to police themselves. So I’m going to ask him to stop officially. I mentioned it to him before and never put it in writing,” Lee said, explaining how she came to decide on sending the letter to Scott.

This is not the first sign of friction on the board.

AdvancED, a nonprofit, nonpartisan accreditation organization that reviews public school systems across the nation, had a review team evaluate the Liberty County district in March. The review committee reported that through interviews with board members and meeting minutes, board members were “not operating responsibly and functioning effectively” and revealed problems related to the code of ethics and board training.

According the report, “A recent mediation had occurred with Board members. … Some share how there was interference by Board members with upcoming elections for vacancies on the Board. One Board member shared how he was trying to decide what he could do to get the right people to oppose the Board members who were currently on the Board. Board members shared how some used Facebook postings and radio announcements as avenues to discredit other Board members.”

The review committee recommended more training for the board.

Civility policy

Lee wrote to Scott that he is in violation of the board’s civility policy.

The civility policy, in the LCSS Governance Handbook, is a set of expectations for civil behavior of board members.

Baker said all board members are supposed to follow the guidelines of the state and local civility policy. The handbook outlines what will happen if a member violates a policy. Baker said if a violation occurs, “The board has to agree and vote on it.”

During the board’s morning work session May 31, there was an agenda item listed as “Board Member Sanction.” It is normal practice for the agenda to be approved at the beginning of the meeting.

BOE member Dr. Yvette Keel asked to amend the agenda and change “sanction” to “violation.” Member Verdell Jones asked to change sanction to “violation of civility policy.” Jones then made a motion to remove the item from the agenda until the board was presented with more information. Smith Carter, who led the meeting in Baker’s absence, said the item was put on the agenda because of the AdvancED report. The motion was approved to remove the item from the agenda, with Keel and Carter opposed.

Baker said, “At the time of the possible sanction (at the morning work session), some board members felt that what happened did not deserve a sanction. That’s why some of them asked for it to be removed from the agenda and add it as a violation.”

According to the governance handbook, board members in violation of the policy can face sanctions that include a board member not receiving an allowance for future expenses incurred while attending a conference or event, mandatory completion of three to six hours of professional development, fines up to $1,000 and a request to the governor to have a board member removed.

Baker said the board is scheduling a workshop with BOE attorney Phil Hartley about civility policy violations and sanctions. Baker said she hopes the board members will resolve their issues and work together.

“The board and Dr. Lee, we’re working extremely hard to bring us all together, and I commend my board for working to do that,” Baker said. “We’re working hard to bring us together to a place where we can accept the governance handbook, rely on the governance handbook to direct us and state law. We have a good board. I believe that we can be a very functional board.”

Tony Arasi, the director of board development for Georgia School Boards Association, said that it is important for board members and the superintendent to work together.

“It’s almost like a marriage,” Arasi said. “There’s compromise, commitment, and you have to work on it every day. We’re talking about adults. We hope they understand each other’s view, but it’s a situation that can be challenging.”

Arasi said that in general, school-board members should focus more on where they agree instead of where they disagree.

Officer, attorney attend meetings

A Hinesville police officer has been present at recent BOE meetings. Scott said he asked to have an officer present because “most school boards have an officer and attorney present at all meetings.”

The officer stays in the building while the board members are in executive session and escorts them to their vehicles once they adjourn.

Scott made a motion during the board’s regular meeting Tuesday for an attorney to be present at all board meetings. He then amended his motion to request the board to receive information about the costs and process of having an attorney present at every meeting. It was approved.

Later, Scott said, “I requested that we have an attorney present so there won’t be any allegations that’s false.”

At the end of Lee’s letter to Scott, she writes that she hopes the matter can be resolved with getting the authorities involved.

Lee said her desire is for what she termed “threatening behavior” to stop and that she has no immediate plans to move forward with litigation.

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