Kansas school district attempts to stifle, marginalize board members

(The Sentinel) – Chanute (Kansas) Board of Education President Heather Guernsey and Superintendent of Schools Matt Koester refuse to answer questions about a “board governance document”…

(The Sentinel) – Chanute (Kansas) Board of Education President Heather Guernsey and Superintendent of Schools Matt Koester refuse to answer questions about a “board governance document” designed to prevent board members from speaking to staff or faculty – or even entering a building without permission from Guernsey or Koester.

The document – obtained by The Sentinel – outlines how the Chanute BOE is expected to operate. Research conducted by Board Member Derek Waggoner indicates that only 2% of districts in the state have such a document.

The document states – among other provisions – that board members will: “recognize that the role of the board is to govern and oversee the management of the district” and “… will delegate authority to the superintendent for the day-to-day operations of the district and will not seek to participate in the day-to-day operations.”

Undefined terms like ‘day-to-day’ dangerously expose board members to possible sanctions by the board.  For example, if asking a question about school operations is deemed to be seeking to participate in day-to-day operations, the board could vote to publicly sanction a member and damage their reputation in the community.  Something similar happened to Olathe board member Brian Connell last year.

Additionally, board members are apparently asked to affirm they will “work to avoid surprises and will give the superintendent or board president notification of my concerns prior to the board meetings, so that the concerns can be properly addressed either prior to or during the meeting.”

The document also lays out what appear to be “approved channels” for “staying informed” about current “educational issues “by individual study and through participation in programs providing needed information; for example, those sponsored by the Kansas Association of School Boards (KASB) and the National School Boards Association (NSBA).”

Moreover, agenda items, according to the document, “are created by the superintendent and board officers and are presented to the board no later than 72 hours preceding the regularly scheduled meeting.

“Any board member may provide a written or verbal request to the superintendent or board president to have an item placed on the agenda. The request will be discussed at the next agenda planning session (emphasis added), assuming the request is received prior to such session, and may be added at the discretion of the board president.”

In other words, board members are denied the right to add agenda items, i.e., represent their constituents, without Guernsey’s permission.

According to the document, members are only allowed to ask the superintendent for information in board meetings, and their requests may not be fulfilled.

Members are required to “direct requests for documentation or reports at the board table to the superintendent and not to the presenter. A majority of the board members must concur that the information is needed before the superintendent will be responsible to gather and distribute it. The board and the superintendent will agree on a reasonable timeframe for the requested material to be provided to all board members.”

Board members are also prevented from speaking to the public at the meetings.

“At no time should board members direct comments or questions to members of the audience,” the document reads. “Those questions should be directed to the Superintendent or Board Clerk.”

Also, while “board members are encouraged to attend school events,” they are apparently not allowed to visit schools individually.

“Board members are able to visit buildings as a board (emphasis added),” the document reads. “These visits will be posted as an official meeting and will be scheduled with the building administration.”

The Sentinel reached out on June 5, 2024, to both Guernsey and Koester asking why this document was considered necessary, why it would be “inappropriate” for a board member to exercise their duties by communicating with staff or visiting a building and if whether there currently is any written policy in place prohibiting or discouraging communication between board members and staff or faculty.

As of publication, neither has responded.

The background on the Chanute board

Current board member Derek Waggoner became concerned about the restrictions on board members shortly after his election but before he took office.  He said he received a tersely-worded email from Guernsey after reaching out to a staff member with questions about four months before he was sworn in.

Waggoner said it all started about 9 weeks before he was sworn in.

“I was issued a district email on 11/8/23. The same evening the email was issued, I attended a (career technical education) meeting at the school as I am on the Ag advisory board. During the course of our meeting, our vice principal spoke about being the new CTE Advisor as our district had just lost our full time advisor.”

Waggoner said a few days later, he received a phone call from someone in the community with some questions about the additional workload being added to the vice principal.

“I started to write an email to the vice principal,” he said. “(I) remembered that I had been given a school email and thought that it would be nice to finally have one place where I could keep all of my school information so I used that email. 

“I asked for some talking points on our CTE program. How many kids did the program begin with, how many were in it now, when did we start the program, how many different programs were now offered, etc. I then asked the vice principal their thoughts on this being an additional responsibility to them. Four days later I received an email back with exceptional information. 

Then, however, the wheels apparently came off.

“The next email I received (on the same day) was where, looking back, it all started to go downhill,” Waggoner said. “I received an email from the board president with the following notes: 

  • A board member is only a board member at the board table. 
  • The only employee of the board is the superintendent.
  • If you have questions about anything, your first call/email/text should be to me as the board president. I will then confer with the superintendent and get back with you. 
  • You should not contact administration, or any staff, to discuss board topics.  

Guernsey’s attempts to control Waggoner aside, she is wrong about only being a board member during board meetings.

Waggoner said he has sat on several other boards in his community but knew school boards would be different. However, he said, this simply didn’t seem normal. 

About two weeks after the email, Waggoner said he received a phone call from KASB and was told that “school board members could speak with administrators and teachers, that they should be walking buildings, going into classrooms, checking instruction and eating lunch. Not only can they, but they should. We should do those things individually and as a group.”

He then scheduled a follow-up meeting with Guernsey and Koester about four weeks before his first meeting. 

“Going into this meeting, I was thinking this would all be explained as miscommunication. We just weren’t on the same page,” he said. “I began by informing them of what I had discovered from other districts and what the recommendations from KASB were. They were unfazed. Not only did they hold their ground and tell me I shouldn’t be doing those things and that visiting buildings was inappropriate but I was then reprimanded for the email I sent to the vice principal regarding the CTE question.”

Two weeks later, in a Zoom meeting, the district’s KASB member backpedaled and declined to repeat what he had told Waggoner.

By his first meeting, the “board governance document” was on the agenda and being discussed.

He said Guernsey and Koester presented it as a conglomeration of the policies of the other six districts that have such policies, but he compared the document presented to those policies and found significant differences. particularly the removal of the phrase “I have not only the right” from a section that now reads “(I) understand that I have the duty to express my views and opinions and ask questions at the board table, and will make a good faith effort to understand the views of others.”

In four of the other six policies from other districts, the documents reads, “Understand that I have not only the right, but the duty …”

When Waggoner questioned the removal of language establishing the right of the board members to ask questions, he said he was told “it’s only words” and “it means the same thing.”

Waggoner said he did not set out to create conflict but simply wanted to understand what his duties and rights as a member were and understand the reasoning behind the document.

“That’s why I’m so methodical with my research because the decisions I make matter, right, in every aspect of my life,” he said. “That’s why this whole thing to me it’s just been a whirlwind of emotions because you’re just like, I don’t know what I don’t know anymore. I’m being told three different things. The overwhelming majority of the people that want to see me succeed and do good things are like, ‘this is wrong.’

Ward Cassidy, Executive Director for the Kansa School Board Resource Center – which, like the Sentinel, is owned by the Kansas Policy Institute – said the “governance document” was entirely too restrictive.

“No board member should have to adhere to such a policy,” Cassidy said. “Derek was elected to represent his constituents and it appears that they are restricting him and their entire board from doing so.”

Board president demands compliance to her policy, but not state law

While Guernsey demands that board members obey her rules, she may be less inclined to have the district adhere to state law.

K.S.A. 72-1163 says the school board “shall conduct” needs assessments in each school and use the information in preparation of the next budget.  The board is required to identify barriers to proficiency in reading and math, determine the budget changes needed to overcome the barriers, and state how long it will take for all students in the school to be proficient.

Waggoner says he hasn’t been invited to any such meetings since he joined the board in January.

The district’s state assessment results underscore the importance of the board identifying proficiency barriers and implementing changes.  Student outcomes in math and reading were declining pre-COVID and are even lower now, with more students below grade level than are proficient.

In math, 40% are below grade level, and only 21% are proficient; English language arts (ELA) outcomes are 33% and 32%, respectively.