RUSSELLVILLE, Mo. — A bolstered public presence at Thursday's Cole R-1 School District Board of Education meeting led to a venue change and some contentious exchanges between meeting attendees and school board members.
A crowd of more than 100 was on hand in support of Judy Wilson, whose contract as the high school's secretary was not renewed in April. The large attendance forced the meeting to relocate from the high school library to the gymnasium, and the open session was book-ended by frustrated residents in search of answers.
As the meeting began, members of the public learned that, per board policy, they'd be unable to speak during the citizen participation portion of the agenda unless the topic was an open session item. Personnel issues such as the one drawing citizens' concern are reviewed in closed session.
Those in attendance, however, did not back down.
"You're representing us, let us speak to you," one audience member shouted. "We voted you in."
Eventually, one resident — Sheila Hagen — was allowed to speak. She and others present voiced particular ire throughout the evening toward board President Shawn Ehrhardt. In her statement, Hagen alleged he had mocked a Facebook group supporting Wilson and contended "he, in particular, does not care about the feelings of the students, parents or voters in (the) district."
"As you should understand, perception is reality, and the way I'm feeling now is that the public trust, at least in Mr. Ehrhardt, has been breached," Hagen's statement read, in part.
Hagen also urged the board to reconsider its decision from its April meeting.
From there, the board handled business as usual, discussing COVID-19 relief funding from three federal relief packages passed since last year and preliminary information regarding the 2021-22 district budget, which the district will adopt next month. One item of note was possible pay raises for teachers and non-certified staff; the board was presented with salary comparisons from area school districts to help inform such a change for next academic year.
As the board attempted to vote to move into closed session after about an hour of open session business, outcry from the public once again escalated.
At this time, members of the audience asked board members to explain the procedures for voting on closed session items when the board has outgoing members due to an election. Board members briefly explained how the group handles bringing in new members and the process of voting on closed session items.
"You guys are supposed to be our voice," another audience member said later. "That's your job. That's why we put you in this position. I would've appreciated one person contacting anybody to ask, 'What do you think? You're our community.' You voted out a community member that has helped raise our children. It's disgusting."
A statement provided to Central Missouri Newspapers on behalf of former school board member Jerry Schulte further expands on the frustration with the current board's handling of the issue.
"For the sake of the children of this school district, I wish the community could find four board members that could see through the superintendent and bring honesty and respect back to the leadership of this school," Schulte's statement reads.
Eventually, the back-and-forth ended, as the board voted to enter closed session and left the gym. Members of the public hovered around in the gym, hallways and parking lot afterwards.
When contacted the following morning, Superintendent Perry Gorrell offered his thoughts about the previous evening's meeting.
"Well, we want to share that we listened to their concerns, and we'll take that into consideration," Gorrell said of the expanded public presence Thursday.
The school board followed up Friday afternoon with a news release further addressing Thursday's meeting. In the release, the school board thanked the community for attending the meeting and the "outpouring of support shown, which is a true testament to the spirit of this community we love."
"We understand it can be frustrating to not hear the answers you want to hear," the statement reads. "However, the board is not able to comment on the specifics regarding personnel matters pursuant to our policies. We can, however, let you know that personnel decisions are not taken lightly and are not without deliberation."
The statement also clarifies one of the concerns discussed toward the end of the meeting, when audience members asked the board for clarification regarding how common it is for closed business to be moved up on the agenda.
The statement notes seven of the last 11 April school board meetings saw the agenda order changed to include a closed session at the start of the meeting, a practice "not uncommon within our district nor with other school boards in Missouri," the statement reads.
Per the release, this practice allows the board's current members to complete business from the year before swearing in new members.
In closing, the statement asserts the board respects every staff member in the district, and values the input provided by the public to ensure the community's success.
"We have heard your concerns expressed last night and the last few weeks," the statement reads. "We will continue to listen to your input and make improvements to help our school district be the best possible."