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Little Rock School Board debates rules on campus visits

Members divided over proposed policy by Cynthia Howell | September 11, 2022 at 3:49 a.m.
A school bus passes as students head into the building for the first day of school at Little Rock Central High School on Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

A week after the Little Rock School Board considered censuring one of its members, the board debated into the night Thursday on how to clarify its policy on board member visits to schools.

The board took no vote but appeared divided on a draft policy proposed by board President Greg Adams that stated that board members "shall not be present on school property except" for specific reasons listed in the proposed policy.

Those reasons included business related to the board member's own student at a school, public events such as athletic competitions, meetings with the superintendent or designee, or by invitation of the school or district administration.

The policy draft further states that School Board members will "inform or consult with the superintendent" in advance or being in a school district building -- unless it is for a public event or related to the board member's own child.

When visiting a school, a board member will follow guidelines and procedures required of other visitors, such as signing in and using entrances designated for visitors.

A School Board member who is present on a school campus outside of the reasons and guidelines listed above will be asked to leave the campus," the draft states. "If the board member does not leave he or she will be considered an unauthorized visitor and subject to district policy and procedure to be removed from campus."

School Board members will meet their statutory duty to visit schools and classrooms ... by attending school-sponsored public events and by participating in announced and scheduled campus tours organized by the superintendent or designee," the draft policy concludes.

Board member Ali Noland said she would prepare an alternative draft policy for the board to consider -- possibly for as soon as the board's Sept. 22 meeting.

Noland said she had concerns about the initial draft policy because it would limit board members from getting information about what is happening in schools that isn't filtered through the superintendent. The board oversees the superintendent.

"This could potentially, voluntarily put handcuffs on our ability to do that oversight work," she said.

Board member Vicki Hatter called the proposed policy a "knee-jerk" response to an incident that she said was not proved and that only one campus has complained about a board member's visits.

She also argued that the School Board members are required by state law to visit campuses -- that law trumps policy -- and that board members can't be required to give up their parental rights in regard to school visits.

Hatter was at the center of a high school principal's complaint earlier this year that led to an outside law firm conducting an investigation into the accusations, including Hatter's visits to Parkview where her daughter was a student last year. The investigative report led to the board's consideration that Hatter be censured.

Principal Philicia Bell had accused Hatter of seeking to have her fired from the principal's job, of publicly sharing information from a School Board executive session regarding Bell, of pressuring Bell to enroll two students into Parkview who did not go through the standard enrollment process, failing to follow rules for entering the Parkview campus through its front doors, entering classrooms and teacher work areas without permission, disregarding school rules on bringing lunches to their students, and interfering with the student council planning the school's annual prom.

Law firm investigators found Hatter at fault for some of the accusations, although they concluded that Hatter did not violate district policy or state law by visiting the Parkview campus -- using a variety of school entrances -- to visit classrooms, speak with employees or bring lunches to her daughter.

Board members at a special meeting Sept. 1 took the rare step of considering the discipline of one of its members but, instead, recommitted themselves to consistently fulfilling their responsibilities as defined in law and policy.

The board voted 8-0 to develop and revise its policies as needed "to provide greater clarity to behaviors and expectations of board members -- especially in regard to visitation of schools by board members."

Board member Evelyn Callaway made the motion to approve the resolution at that Sept. 1 meeting.

At Thursday's session, Callaway said giving notice to a school of a board member visit was common courtesy and ethical behavior, and a way to avoid a public spectacle that damages the district and the city of Little Rock.

"I'm not trying anybody here. I just really think ... we need a set of protocols that are ethical for board members," Callaway said. "I don't want to ever see this happen again in this school district. That hurts us," she said.

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