The Onteora School District Board of Trustees held its reorganizational meeting last week. One trustee urged others on the board to hold themselves to the same standards as students, staff, parents and everyone else involved with the district.
“Through the past year, we’ve had social media posts mocking students,” said trustee Laurie
Osmond. “We’ve had email exchanges calling board members names. We’ve had people railing against students and parents and alumni and coaches. As a result, there are trustees who felt vilified and bullied and disrespected to the point where it is my opinion, we lost our best, most prepared, and most dedicated board members. And this is creating a lot of damage,” she said.
Osmond said if the board expects students, staff, parents and visitors to follow a code of conduct, then it should be held to the same standard.
She felt the rule to “model the behaviors the board expects of students, staff and community members,” should extend outside the board meetings.
“So moving forward, I think everyone needs to really do a better job,” she said.
“We do not need to be embarrassed by having things come out that people regret having said. To maintain a trusting relationship among trustees, “don’t post things on social media because you think they’re funny or damaging to people. Pay attention to what you’re doing. And if you’ve made a mistake, own up to it and apologize to people who have been hurt by it,” Osmond said.
“So I think this needs to be modified beyond the board table and also electronically,” she added.
Newly appointed board president Kevin Salem, while agreeing with Osmond’s concerns in spirit, warned of potential overreach by regulating trustees’ communication outside of board meetings.
“I don’t disagree with regard to our internal communications,” he said.
Trustee Bennet Ratcliff agreed.
“I don’t believe we need to be self-censoring either our parents or students or anyone, especially these platforms where civil liberties and civil rights are paramount,” he said. Ratcliff also referenced the recent Supreme Court decision in favor of a former Pennsylvania high school cheerleader who railed against her school in a profanity laced Snapchat rant after she failed to get a spot on the varsity squad.
The school suspended the student from the junior varsity team and she sued, alleging the school violated her First Amendment rights.
“I’m well aware of what civility is and I hope to uphold that civility at all times,” said Ratcliff. “That is why when I say something, I say something publicly. And when I say something publicly, it can be at the board table, or it can be on social media, or it can be in a grocery store.”
“My whole point is I’m hoping that board members can agree that name calling, bullying, ostracizing, are not acceptable behaviors for board members toward each other,” Osmond said.
“And they are damaging and whether it needs to be codified or not, I would hope that people would have the wisdom and good sense to refrain from doing such things moving forward,” she added.
“I think we all agree with that and I think it’s part of our ethos as a board,” said Salem.
Osmond agreed to the board norms as written as long as her concerns were part of the record.
Other board norms include requiring trustees to make sure all relevant information has been presented before committing to a decision, avoiding hidden agendas or springing surprises on other trustees and allowing others to speak without interruption.
Trustees are also required to support board decisions and not work to undermine them.
In addition to appointing Trustee Salem as the new president, the board also made trustee Emily Sherry the new vice president.