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Policies concerning political activities, personal property items, to come back to school board for more discussion

By MEGHAN BRADBURY - | Feb 23, 2024

Controversial policies regarding political activities and use of employees’ personal property at school did not pass during the Lee County School Board’s meeting Wednesday.

Those two issues, addressed with six policies, were among other policies for board approval.

For new policies to go into effect, they must pass with four votes; pre-existing amended policies must receive five votes to pass. The board members who voted yes to pass all of the policies included Chairman Sam Fisher, Melissa Giovannelli, Armor Persons, and Vice Chair Jada Langford-Fleming. Those who voted against the motion included Board members Chris Patricca, Debbie Jordan, and Cathleen Morgan.

The six policies pertaining to political activities and employee’s personal property at school will be brought back to the board for a pre-briefing for additional discussion at an upcoming meeting.

The policy that drew the most discussion during the afternoon meeting dealt with employee personal property at school.

Board Attorney Kathy Dupuy-Bruno said the use of employee personal property at school policy has been in place for a while. Prior language included staff members who wished to bring personal property to school is either for reasons associated with professional responsibilities or use for off duty time.

The policy that was not approved stated “employees shall not display in plain view or in the line of sight of students personal items that are not part of an approved curriculum or in accordance with Board Policy that reflects politics, religion, social movements, and/or personal ethics. A small personal item such as a 5×7 framed family picture is acceptable. The display of any items in workplaces and workspaces may be considered district speech and may be regulated in accordance with this board policy.”

The school board had a very lengthy debate over the policy, sharing their personal viewpoints of why they thought it was either a needed policy, or should not go forward.

The first question after the vote took place was Persons stating that he was not sure where the issue of the flag dispute at Riverdale High School left off.

“Does this mean the flag will stay up in Riverdale? Is the policy strong enough that you can have the flag taken down, or the signs that have the safe place with gay pride stickers behind them,” he asked the superintendent.

Langford-Fleming said a tighter policy needs to be put into place regarding the policy, especially if the flag was asked to be taken down and it is still up.

Superintendent Dr. Christopher Bernier said the stickers have a replacement, which will be given to principals at a Friday meeting.

He said it was his understanding that the policies were never an attempt to deal with a particular item at Riverdale High School.

“It was a change and desire for overall classroom neutrality position,” Bernier said.

The conversation about personal property stemmed from Persons stating that when he ran his campaign, it was about getting back to basics in education.

“I thought back to when I went to school, we never had any displays that were controversial,” Persons said, adding that he had no idea what political party his teachers were a part of. “I think it’s a good policy.”

Patricca said the policies were brought forward because a flag that was considered political was hanging at a school and brought to the board’s attention.

“We are responding with a political policy. This is just not an issue. It’s an issue because distraction was based on one thing, in one classroom in a massive district,” she said. “The introduction of this policy was born out of a flag in a classroom.”

Morgan said essentially public sector employees have no First Amendment rights in the first place. She said the second part of that is state laws determine what neutrality is by spelling out what is personal politics, social movement, and ethics.

“There is no First Amendment rights for teachers in the classroom. The state has determined what is neutral. My concern is I don’t know how the superintendent can enforce this. Nobody will know what is neutral,” Morgan said.

Bernier said the translation that would be critical for him is telling his 118 principals what to look for when enforcing the policy.

“I want to make sure it is done fairly,” he said. “If all seven walked (through) the classroom with me, we might see very different things. How on Friday, do I direct them what to be looking for? What is acceptable and what is not with only viewpoint neutral?”

Giovannelli thought it to be pretty simple — a guidance for good judgement.

“When in doubt leave it out,” she said, adding that if a teacher questioned something to be put into a classroom, they should ask. “It’s being held accountable and not necessarily micromanaging. We have to have some policies. Not everyone has the same judgement.”

Jordan said they already have policies in place now.

“We can all walk into a classroom — we are going to see things in a different lens from everyone. I don’t want to be that person to have policies to say we have policies,” she said.

“If this were to pass, how much time is taken away from their job for student outcome. If we know this is already happening and he (Bernier) has heard here very clearly that we want that tightened up with policies in place, why are we even having this conversation?”

Fisher said he did not want to overcomplicate things, but if it is related to curriculum and education of the students, it’s fine. Outside of those, he does not think it belongs.