Citing “the increasing acrimony in the tone of our community dialogue,” Kyrene Superintendent Jan Vesely at last week’s school board meeting asked for the “end of divisiveness” among audience members.
“I ask that we stop the ugliness,” said Vesely in her second plea for civility in as many weeks.
Her plea came at a time when several recent meetings have been marked by some outbursts by a few audience members, mostly during that part of the session when citizens each have three minutes to address the board. At one recent meeting, someone in the audience catcalled board member John King when he was speaking.
Several audience members walked out during that session on Sept. 25 after a man who was addressing the board turned toward the audience, looked at them, then knelt on one knee in an echo of football players who have knelt in protest during the National Anthem.
A parent who was at that meeting told AFN at the time she felt threatened by his actions.
On several recent occasions, some speakers addressing the board also used a racial epithet to criticize district policies involving African American students.
“I feel it necessary to remind the public that the purpose of the governing board meetings is to conduct the business of the district,” Vesely said. “It is not intended to be used as a community forum or debate.
“It is important for all community members to feel welcome and safe in the board’s business meetings,” she continued. “Just as we expect our students to be respectful of each other, audience members will be expected to treat all attendees with respect and civility. I’m calling tonight for an end of the divisiveness in this board room because it does not reflect well on the community which we represent, the community that we serve.”
Some of the harsh rhetoric used by audience members appears to have come from people living outside the district’s boundaries or parents of students who are bused in from parts of Phoenix outside Ahwatukee. They have contended that the district’s disciplinary policies are harsher with non-Caucasian students than students of color, chiefly African American.
Vesely took aim at that criticism at the Sept. 25 meeting when she made an even wider-ranging speech that shot back at criticisms voiced by board member Michelle Fahy at the Sept. 4 meeting.
“Nearly 55 percent of our students are students of color, so their needs are absolutely a priority,” Vesely said.
She went on to detail how each of Kyrene’s 25 schools have studied “cultural competency” and created diversity teams to address any racial disparities as well as groups of parents of students of color and those with special needs.
“We are working with them to address gaps and seek their guidance on how we can make changes to improve outcomes for all students,” she said, noting how one parent who publicly assailed the district because his children had been “disrespected” was neither a Kyrene resident nor ever had children enrolled at any Kyrene school.
Without naming her, Vesely also addressed Fahy’s critical remarks made when she cast the lone vote against extending the superintendent’s contract for three years at a meeting in August.
Fahy said the district needed a new superintendent, claiming Vesely was not communicative.
Fahy’s criticism – which her board colleagues rebuked – was partly related to Vesely’s failure to schedule a meeting that Fahy had requested with her. Fahy also in the past has suggested Vesely has instituted policies in the district that have lowered teacher morale.
Stating on Sept. 25 that “I consider my responsibility to be responsive to the governing board a top priority,” Vesely said:
“I make myself available by phone or in person to discuss questions or concerns with board members. It is sometimes difficult, given board members’ work schedules and other conflicts, but these requests to meet or talk are not refused but often coordinated with the board president….I believe that my record demonstrates that I an not only willing but also eager to address the tough questions facing our district, and I will continue to work with all board members in seeking appropriate and effective solutions.”
As for teacher morale, Vesely said that’s a nationwide problem, “as is evidence in the groundswell of advocacy for increased funding for teacher pay.”
“Teachers have been asked to do more and more in the classroom with fewer and fewer resources,” she said.
She noted that she has formed a council of teachers – patterned after councils she has started with parents, community members in general, business owners and students themselves from all 25 schools.
“If there are teachers who are struggling, I would encourage them to reach out to me and I would be happy to listen to their concerns because we need you in the classroom. Let me say that again. We need you. I care about each and every one of you and I want to listen.”