Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Winners and losers from Tuesday night's Joplin R-8 Board meeting

I would have written this sooner, but I have been too busy filing a Sunshine Law request for transcripts of all text messages between Jennifer Martucci and her children.

Of course, I am joking about that, but unfortunately Superintendent C. J. Huff wasn't when he showed his lack of knowledge of the Sunshine Law by claiming that those text messages were public record.

It was five hours full of drama, discussions on issues and maybe one of the most revealing exchanges we have seen in a Joplin R-8 Board of Education as Lynda Banwart and Debbie Fort exchanged their reasons for wanting to become board president.

A lot has been made of the five hour length of the meeting. As someone who has covered more than 1,000 school board meetings since 1977 I am no stranger to board meetings that lasted until 3 a.m. and many more that encroached upon midnight.

The length of a meeting means nothing, especially when you consider that Joplin has had many two and three hour meetings in which considerable time was devoted to fluff presentations and entertainment and items that the public needed to know about were buried in the consent agenda.

I am not expecting many five hour meetings, but for those of you who watched Tuesday night's meeting, it may have been long, but it was interesting throughout. It was the first time I have ever seen a discussion on insurance that held my attention.

A few winners and losers to consider (including some who are in both categories):


Jeff Koch- Not only was this new board member elected president at the end of the contentious meeting, but he had just spent five hours showing why he was the right person for the position. He not only acted as a peacemaker, but his questions were sharp and showed that he had done an incredible amount of research that was not just limited to what was in the board packet.

Jennifer Martucci- One quote from Jennifer Martucci would have been enough to put her in this category- "This is a board meeting, not a superintendent meeting." It is sad that it has taken seven years for someone to tell C. J. Huff what most superintendents already know.

Ryan Jackson and the Public- As Jeff Koch pointed out early in the meeting, it did not make any sense to have the public comment portion of the board, where the public is restricted to talking about items that are on the agenda scheduled after those items had already been discussed and voted on. For the first time in recent memory several members of the public addressed the board and were polite and well-spoken. When C. J. Huff was throwing his extended temper tantrum, Ryan Jackson spoke out. "How is it appropriate for a superintendent to criticize a board member?" he began. Of course, it is against the rules for Jackson to speak out like that and he shouldn't have done it, but I am glad he did.

Columbia Elementary Parents- The decision to move the safe room from a side of the building where previous mining activity has been detected to the other side and to get moving on the project is a win-win for parents, students, and taxpayers.

Jet 14- It is no stretch of the imagination to say that Jet 14 probably had the largest viewership for a school board meeting and perhaps for any program that it has ever had. Between the Cable One station, Jet 14's YouTube channel, the Jet 14 Live page on the district website and the embedded video on the Turner Report, people were caught up in a dramatic display of government in action. At one point last night, more than 1,000 people were watching the video on the Turner Report and I am certain the numbers were much higher on Cable One and the other online venues. As usual, Danny Craven and his crew captured the meeting, not only in a functional way, but also in a cinematic fashion. The close-ups of Lynda Banwart and Debbie Fort as they explained why they wanted to be board president were excellent choices.

Randy Steele- Two small moments in a five-hour session and it would be easy to lose them in all of the outrage over C. J. Huff's behavior, but they stood out to me as two of the most important moments of the meeting. One was the long wait before Jeff Koch voted when Lynda Banwart's name was submitted for president for the final time. It was one of the most suspenseful points of the meeting. It appeared that Koch might be planning to change his mind and vote for Banwart. His eventual "no" vote set up the final compromise. The second moment came and went in an instant. After Lynda Banwart nominated Koch for president, Randy Steele almost immediately seconded it, giving a clear indication that the board was going to have a new president.

Lynda Banwart- Banwart's decision to drop her pursuit of the presidency and agree to serve as Koch's vice president was the right decision at the right time.

Debbie Fort- I tried to put myself in her position. What would I have done if I were serving on the board of education and my employee, the superintendent, were to launch into a prolonged verbal attack on me. Then I realized that if I had been the one on the board, C. J. Huff would most likely not have resorted to that kind of boorish behavior since he seems to reserve that for women. Debbie Fort's quiet, measured response showed class and manners.

KZRG- The Zimmer station offered strong coverage of the meeting, both last night and today on Morning News Watch. An audio of the exchange between Huff, Fort, and Martucci (with a guest appearance by Ryan Jackson) has been posted on the station's website.

Anson Burlingame- The blogger and frequent Joplin Globe guest columnist has been asking for discussion of educational issues at board meetings for a long time. He got it last night.


Mike Landis- If C. J. Huff took the arrogance award at Tuesday night's meeting, he won it in a photo finish. Landis spent a great deal of the time squeaking about how "we" do things. Mikey, there's a new sheriff in town and it's not Randee Kaiser. The people are fed up with the attitude that you showed. That's why Jeff Flowers and Anne Sharp were shown the door. Consider this- Landis, as the sitting vice president, was the man who was in charge of the meeting, yet he did nothing to curb Huff when the superintendent launched his attack on Debbie Fort. A leader would have put a stop to it. A decent human being would have put a stop to it. And Landis continued with the tired, "The only person we hire is the superintendent." No, Mikey, that is not the way it works. The board is responsible for hiring every employee in the school district. When Jeff Koch replied, "That's the way it's done now,"  with an emphasis on the word "now,"that should have sent a message to C. J. Huff about creating jobs that are not needed and promoting unqualified people to positions they are not capable of handling.

Joplin R-8 Teachers- The one misstep by the board was its decision, by a 6-0 vote, to approve spending $300,000 for the NWEA testing system. It received glowing reviews from a number of teachers who were at the meeting (as if any teachers are going to come to the meeting and speak out against what C. J. Huff wants), and the prospect of using it in place of other tests sounded appealing,but there were facts that were never brought into the discussion. This testing system (you can call it assessment all you want, it's a test) is designed to prepare students for Common Core testing. The board just committed us to three years of this without any guarantee that Common Core will be around in one year, much less three. School districts across the U. S. have dropped this testing package. This was never brought up and I plan to write more about that. No one asked why NWEA should be a help to teachers and students when the similar Acuity was used for years and test scores fell every year after the district bought Acuity. Standardized testing of students in grades K-2 is also a problem, though apparently none of the elementary teachers or principals who spoke last night are aware of the research showing that this kind of testing is counterproductive. Finally, student results are going to be used in the evaluation of teachers, a dangerous practice, especially in the hands of a district and an administration that has many inexperienced and unqualified administrators who don't know the first thing about evaluating teachers, with many of them having little experience in the classroom.

Lynda Banwart- C. J. Huff's rant against Debbie Fort was not the shocker of the meeting to me. That came when Lynda Banwart blamed Fort for asking tough questions of C. J. Huff and his administrative team. That was what provoked Huff's strong responses, she said. That is not a leader speaking; that is a follower and an enabler.As I wrote last night, Banwart might have become president if she had stood up for Fort during Huff's verbal barrage. Instead, she apparently thought Fort had it coming.

Randy Steele- When Steele said, referring to the speakers at the beginning of the meeting, that what the public said didn't matter to him, it certainly explained a lot about his last seven years on the board.

Columbia Elementary Parents- The good news- it will be late but you are going to get a safe room. The bad news- Mike Johnson's in charge of it.

Joplin Globe- The Globe did not even place the news about the board election on its Facebook page until three hours ago and I am hearing that all comments have been removed. This could be a show of solidarity with Randy Steele to show that the Globe doesn't think the public matters either. In the print edition, the Globe put the story at the top of page one, exactly where it belongs, but then featured a dry account of the early votes for president. What most people saw as a major story coming out of last night's meeting, the bizarre behavior of C. J. Huff, did not make page one. It was relegated to one paragraph on the page seven jump.

C. J. Huff- Contrary to his press clippings, the Joplin Tornado was not a test of C. J. Huff's character. The last two years, in which his long list of questionable financial, academic, and moral decisions have been questioned have offered a true test of his character. And he has failed miserably.


Anonymous said...

Great post, Randy! One thing, I feel that ALL board members should have their phones off during a meeting. They have open laptops in front of them for anything they might need.

Anonymous said...

They have open laptops in front of them for anything they might need.

They all look the same, and have the school district's logo on the cover, right? Which I assume means they're supplied by the school district, meaning they could be used to spy on what the board members do with them, and are otherwise not their own.

If that's the case, the anti-Huff faction very much need their own phones, with, for example, the ability to get unmonitored messages from others who can, for instance, look things up for them during board meetings.

Anonymous said...

I meant solely for research and Email (dinner chatter)purposes. Any chatter with home, sorry, but that is not the place for it.

Anonymous said...

I have a feeling this new board will cause Mr. Huff to show more and more of his true colors. I can't wait for the coming "super tantrum"....and we all know it's coming!

kitty chiwawa said...

My suspicion is that board members in the past have used cell phones to message each other during the meetings...kind of like some immature types do at boring and unpleasant family events.

Ryan Jackson said...

Calling to the chair for a "point of order" to point out that CJ was speaking out of turn regarding the board topic for discussion may not be in keeping with the school boards "rules" for a meeting but it is within the correct parameters of Robert's Rules of Order, and Parliamentary Procedure.

Anonymous said...

I think the selection of board president and vice president was good. Maybe a minor issue but I hope that now the seating arrangements will change and Landis will be moved away from CJ. There's a much greater chance of a civil discussion if these two are not sitting next to each to allow them to continue the snide comments and over talking they engage in. They egg each other on and it is abundantly clear that they are both too immature to correct their behavior.

Dusty Roads said...

CJ has Caesar syndrome and Landis has a case of Littlemanitus.

Anonymous said...

I know that Koch wants patrons, students, and staff to be patient and give the new Board a little time. I appreciate that. But he needs to understand how we all feel--there is no time to spare. Teachers are leaving again. No one has much hope that next year will be any better without some immediate action. We can't wait too long to sit around waiting for some signs of hope. CJ had his favorite plain clothes policeman at the meeting last night, fearing one would guess that the parents would get out of control. But the parents and patrons, and probably the staff, fear the problem will go the other direction. So go have a retreat or something and get to know each other in a hurry. There is no time to lose. Our kids have lost enough already.