The normally staid atmosphere of the Kyrene Governing Board erupted into some tense moments last week after two members criticized two others for signing a letter that asked state officials to delay resumption of in-classroom instruction until at least Oct. 1.
Board Vice President Kevin Walsh of Chandler and member Michelle Fahy of Tempe were the subject of prepared remarks by board President Michael Myrick and member John King for signing the letter without discussing it with the rest of the board.
King also went further in a blistering criticism of Fahy for using an earlier board meeting to announce that she was seeking another term on the board and allegedly criticizing Superintendent Dr. Jan Vesely behind her and the board’s back.
Without mentioning her by name, King said Fahy “repeatedly levies political attacks on the district leadership behind the scenes” and that she “decided to reach out directly to teachers to have them send the emails of concern to Dr. Vesely in order to pressure her to make a decision to delay the start of school.”
Myrick refused to let Walsh and Fahy directly answer his and King’s criticism.A district spokeswoman said the board's rules of procedure prevented Fahy and Walsh from responding.
But Walsh later in the meeting said he had asked Vesely what she thought of the letter and that she expressed no opposition to him signing it. He also praised Vesely’s leadership during the roller coaster that COVID-19 has put Kyrene and all districts on ever since campuses were abruptly closed in March.
Fahy toward the end of the meeting asked that the board schedule a future public discussion “to address inaccurate assumptions and accusations” levied at “some board members, including myself, tonight so that we can openly discuss this and everybody can fully understand everybody’s thinking instead of making assumptions and inaccurate accusations.”
The fuse that ignited the remarks by King and Myrick was a July 7 letter signed by more than 80 school board members across Arizona to Gov. Doug Ducey, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman and the Legislature asking for no return to classrooms before Oct. 1.
Board members who signed it included the school district they represent but made no assertion they were speaking on behalf of those districts or their colleagues.
The letter went on to make a series of other requests, including equal per-pupil funding for both online and in-class students; a waiver of the 180-day instruction requirement; suspension of standardized state assessment tests for the school year with allowance for districts to use their own student-performance measurements; and permission to distribute breakfasts and lunches even when campuses are closed.
Ducey in the past has delayed reopening of campuses until Aug. 17 – a date he called “aspirational.”
He is expected to have more to say about that date and the reopening of campuses this week, past AFN’s press deadline.
The letter has caused some issues for other board members not only in Kyrene but elsewhere.
During the Higley Unified Governing Board meeting last week, board Vice President Kristina Reese suggested she had been blindsided by phone calls, emails and texts asking why she didn’t sign the letter and from some who thanked her for not signing.
She said the letter did not go out to all board members and that had she received it she personally would not have signed it.
Higley board member Scott Glover had signed the letter, as did Tempe Union Board President Berdetta Hodge and board vice president Brian Garcia.
The Higley vice president’s experience in the aftermath of publicity about the letter resonated in Kyrene as well, according to Myrick’s statement last week at the Kyrene meeting.
Stating he had been asked why he hadn’t signed the letter, Myrick stressed, “I was never contacted by those circulating the statement and therefore was not even given the opportunity to consider whether to add my signature.”
Myrick and King stressed several times the bipartisan nature of school board positions in Arizona and suggested Fahy and Walsh had politicized the complex issue of campus reopenings – with King suggesting Fahy did so because she eyes higher political office.
Myrick’s term is expiring and he is on the ballot for the Tempe Union Governing Board. King is not seeking a third term on the Kyrene board.
Myrick said the fact that Walsh and Fahy signed the letter “does not represent the consensus of the entire board.”
King called Fahy’s purported efforts to have teachers lobby for a delay in reopening campuses “absolutely reprehensible” and asked that her reelection announcement be stricken from both the board minutes and the meeting video.
“You may make the statement of your choosing so long as you preface that statement with the comment that you are only speaking as a member of a community and not as an elected official of any kind,” King said in a pointed reference to Walsh and Fahy.
He also said signing the letter to the state officials “violates an agreement established by the board several years ago that would keep the board – and especially individual board members – from taking such political side publicly. We are not here for the politics. We are here for our students.”
Ironically, the dustup occurred after Vesely discussed the new school year in prepared remarks that were unrelated to the letter sent to the state officials.
However, she, too, referred to the increasing polarization around the issue of reopening campuses.
“This academic year will be different from any school year before,” she said. “We continue to receive daily requests from parents wanting schools to look exactly like they did prior to COVID-19.
“We also want schools to operate as they did previously but that is simply not possible as we are taking every safety precaution that we can,” Vesely continued, adding the district has had to “schedule and staff differently” and “determine what school options are possible” to ensure students and staff are protected as much as possible from COVID-19 infection.
“We’ve had to change every school operation that exists,” Vesely said, bringing up a letter she had received from an unidentified Kyrene first-grade teacher who expressed concern that the district – like many others in the East Valley and Arizona – might start online learning for all students.
Currently, children signed up for the Kyrene Digital Academy will begin the new school year July 30. All other students begin the new year Aug. 17 whether they have been signed up for five-day in-class learning or the hybrid, or flex model, that includes both online and classroom instruction.
While the district is prepared to offer online instruction to all students if that becomes necessary, Vesely said, “I do not want to further confuse parents, teachers, employees with another change until we have more certainty about state funding.”