Odd woman out 

What’s behind Missoula’s school board discord?

An ongoing clash over rules governing conduct among the Missoula County Public Schools Board of Trustees intensified Dec. 12 at a monthly school board meeting. During the public comment portion, Trustee Teresa Jacobs criticized Board Chairwoman Jenda Hemphill’s refusal to discuss an opinion piece Hemphill wrote in October for the Missoulian that repeatedly reproached Jacobs, without naming her, for “engag[ing] in a pattern of behavior designed to obstruct board meetings.”

“I can only conclude that she has stated falsehoods and that she is using her position as board chair for personal or political gain,” Jacobs said at the meeting. “I am losing trust in the MCPS board chair to be balanced, fair and consistent in carrying out her duties…”

While the conflict over Hemphill’s recently published opinion and the issues underlying it are worth considering on their own merits, they also reflect a broader dynamic that’s established Jacobs as an ostracized one-member minority on the board. And while Hemphill says Jacobs’ black-sheep status is self-inflicted, Jacobs maintains that she’s experiencing backlash for the persistence with which she’s raised questions about board behavior, including her references to an ongoing investigation by the Missoula County Attorney’s Office. In September, the Independent reported that Superintendent Jim Clark and Trustee Drake Lemm were under investigation for a potential conflict of interest because, according to a city building permit, Clark hired Lemm to build a garage addition despite district rules prohibiting trustees from “engaging in a substantial financial transaction” with employees they supervise, which in Lemm’s case includes Clark. By press deadline, Chief Civil Deputy County Attorney Mike Sehestedt had not responded to multiple requests for information regarding the status of that investigation.

In response to Jacobs’ comments at the Dec. 12 meeting, Hemphill tells the Independent she’s unwilling to discuss the claims in her opinion piece with Jacobs because “it’s time to move on and start fresh.” The piece, she says, was designed to respond to a “horrid” and “very inflammatory” Missoulian editorial that took the school board to task for endorsing new rules that reined in trustees’ actions, namely those of Jacobs. More specifically, in September the board’s Personnel, Negotiations and Policy Committee agreed to require board approval before trustees can submit requests for information to the district’s legal counsel or staff. It also agreed to restrict all trustee discussion of substantive school board issues among any members by e-mail, going above and beyond state Open Meeting Law provisions that prohibit substantive discussion among a majority of the board’s members without announcing it as a public meeting. Additionally, the name of the meeting forum for trustee comments was changed from the broadly defined “Items from Trustees” to the more specific “Announcements from Trustees,” forcing trustees to deliver commentary during the “Public Comment” portion of monthly meetings. The committee also considered, but didn’t ultimately pursue, enforcing a two-minute time limit on trustees’ comments.

An editorial published in the Missoulian soon after that meeting condemned the board for “attempting to shut [Jacobs] up.” Hemphill tells the Independent that the board wasn’t muzzling disagreement, but rather addressing “inappropriate actions” on the part of those in the minority, i.e., Jacobs.

“We have a trustee who refuses to accept majority rule…and trustee frustration stems from [her] attempt to interfere with the process and introduce minutiae,” Hemphill says.

Jacobs says she’s comfortable voting solo on some issues, and often votes with the majority. When she addresses questions to legal counsel or staff, she says, she’s simply trying to ensure district compliance with its procedural and legal obligations, especially as pertains to the state’s Open Meeting Law. And given a pending lawsuit filed in 2004 by local citizens over alleged violations of Open Meeting Law, Jacobs says her attention to the issue is important. (Hemphill calls the suit “frivolous.”)

Regardless, acceptance of majority rule shouldn’t be construed to mean that opposition doesn’t play an important role, Jacobs says.

“This board doesn’t understand that dissent is an essential tool of democracy,” Jacobs says. “You need a devil’s advocate and I’m happy to serve in that role even if it makes others uncomfortable. I think [Hemphill] interprets my dissention as an attempt to obstruct.”

Hemphill says differing opinions are welcome, but that much of what Jacobs offers are “roadblocks that delay the process.”

“Some degree of conflict is normal, but unproductive conflict isn’t healthy for an organization,” Hemphill says. “Ten of us are able to work collaboratively, but one isn’t.”

The gap between Jacobs’ and Hemphill’s respective perceptions doesn’t appear to be narrowing any time soon, but Dave Severson, president of the Missoula Education Association, offers a broader perspective that may help place the spat in context. As head of the local teachers’ union, Severson attends the vast majority of district meetings and works with district administration and the school board alike.

Severson sees the discord between Jacobs, who was elected in 2004, and Hemphill, who’s served on the board for the last decade, as a “symptom of unwillingness on the board to really openly deal with issues in an independent way.”

“I’ve seen the MCPS board go into this mode before when they wanted to silence a board member in the past,” says Severson, referring specifically to past trustees Suzette Dussault, Colleen Rogers and Carol Bellin, all of whom have found themselves in the minority.

He says similar discussions regarding trustee access to legal counsel and information requests arose when those trustees persisted in swimming against the board’s prevailing current. Severson says the board’s apparent efforts to marginalize those who don’t contribute to the appearance of a unified front on the board are misplaced.

“Let’s recognize we’re in a political forum; people have different opinions, but let’s hash it out and come to a compromise,” Severson says. “Let’s not create a public perception that we’re one big happy family and that anyone who speaks out about a particular issue is a bad guy.”

jmcquillan@missoulanews.com

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