Newly elected Vancouver Public Schools board members waste no time getting involved in first meeting

New makeup of board provides for some tension at Dec. 10 meeting

VANCOUVER — Three new members of the Vancouver Public Schools’ Board of Directors were sworn in Tuesday night and they wasted no time putting their stamp on that governing body.

The current members of the Vancouver Public Schools Board of Directors gathered for a recent photo. Shown here (left to right) are board members Tracie Barrows, Wendy Smith, Mark Stoker, Kyle Sproul and Kathy Decker. Photo courtesy of Cheryl Boatman/Vancouver Public Schools
The current members of the Vancouver Public Schools Board of Directors gathered for a recent photo. Shown here (left to right) are board members Tracie Barrows, Wendy Smith, Mark Stoker, Kyle Sproul and Kathy Decker. Photo courtesy of Cheryl Boatman/Vancouver Public Schools

Kyle Sproul, Tracie Barrows and Kathy Decker each won seats on the board in the Nov. 5 general election. After being sworn in, they took their seats to help conduct the business for the Dec. 10 meeting, which turned out to be a very eventful session.

“There were two rather unusual items of business at the meeting,’’ said Mark Stoker, who began the meeting as the board president. “The first unusual item was the approval of the bid for the replacement Fir Grove facility.  The existing facility serves our most impacted special needs children and is badly outdated and in need of replacement.’’

The current home of Fir Grove/Vista was is outdated and has many facility-related challenges.  Vancouver Public Schools is planning to replace Fir Grove/Vista with a new building, thanks to a bond measure that voters approved in February 2017.

Tuesday’s board meeting included an agenda item to approve the bid for the new Fir Grove/Vista school. When Stoker called for a motion to approve, none of the other four board members would respond. As a result, Stoker moved for approval and none of the other board members were willing to second the motion so the motion failed.

“There has never been a question about the need or appropriateness of moving forward with the replacement project,’’ Stoker told Clark County Today. “As such, it came as some surprise that I could not get a motion to approve the bid.  When I made the motion to approve, there was no second. As you know, without a valid motion on the table, there is no discussion. This left the district and the public entirely in the dark as to why the bid was not approved.

“For candidates that ran on a platform of greater transparency, this was a poor start,’’ Stoker said. “The better way to have proceeded and avoid surprises — and avoiding surprises is board protocol — would have been to contact the board chair in advance of the meeting and express concern over the agenda item.  At least then, there would have been an opportunity to pull the item from the agenda for further review and avoid the public confusion.

“Another alternative would have been to move to table the item,’’ Stoker added. “While not debatable, I at least could have asked the maker of the motion to explain the intent and then

the board and public would have known. For now, we do not know all the implications of the failure to award the bid, and that is unfortunate.  It may just be a matter of inexperience of new directors.’’

Sproul is the only one of the three newly elected members who responded to Clark County Today’s request for an explanation on the Fir Grove bid.

“Regarding the $10 million Fir Grove contract, I did not have the information needed to move forward yet,’’ said Sproul, who defeated long-time VPS board member Dale Rice in the recent general election. “I have a briefing on the bond projects scheduled for next week.’’

Board member Wendy Smith offered a more detailed explanation when contacted by Clark County Today.

“In our Nov. 12th meeting, the board held a public hearing on whether to remove an elementary school from the list of bond projects due to increased costs, which will not allow us to fund all the projects originally identified for this bond,’’ Smith said. “At that meeting, I expressed my concerns about moving forward with new construction projects before the board had a chance to have a deliberative discussion about the remaining bond projects, review our priorities for the bond, and make sure they are in alignment. 

“With three new board members joining the board simultaneously, all of whom will need thorough briefings to get up to speed on the bond and its projects, it is even more necessary to hit the pause button and take an opportunity to review,’’ Smith added. “My own personal decision to not move forward on the Fir Grove project at this time should not in any way reflect lack of support for a new Fir Grove. I believe there is a high level of need for the building of a new Fir Grove. But that decision is part of a bigger picture that needs to be re-assessed, in my opinion.’’

The election of new board leadership 

Because Sproul replaced Rice on the board, the election of a new vice president was also a business item for Tuesday’s meeting.

“We have a policy (1210) that governs the election of board officers which takes place each year in July in order to sync up terms with the school year,’’ Stoker told Clark County Today. “The policy also provides for election to fill a vacancy at the next board meeting, thus the agenda item for the vacant VP on December 10.

“The president position was not vacant,’’ Stoker added. “I was contacted by a new board member the day before the December 10 meeting and told that the new board wanted to elect a president on December 10 as well.  I explained that the position was not vacant, and that it would be a violation of policy to hold an election mid-term. I also explained that we have a policy (1310) that sets forth a process for amendment to policies that is thoughtful, deliberate, and transparent.  That would be the preferred path if there was interest in changing the timing of

elections.  Unfortunately, that process cannot be completed in one meeting, so it did not fit the new members’ agenda.’’

Sproul was the new board member who contacted Stoker prior to Tuesday’s meeting.

“Prior to the meeting, I informed all the members of the new board, including Mark Stoker, that I intended to make the motion calling for new elections,’’ Sproul told Clark County Today. 

So, the request was made at Tuesday’s meeting to suspend Policy 1210.

“We don’t have a policy on the suspension of board policy, but the Washington State School Directors Association (WSSDA) does,’’ Stoker said. “While the WSSDA policies are advisory, many of our policies are modeled after the WSSDA policies, which are considered to be best practice.  WSSDA policy 1320 on suspension of board policy requires written notice of the intent to suspend and the basis be given in advance of the meeting so that people can be prepared and the public would have notice. In the absence of written notice, the board must approve the suspension unanimously.  Again, WSSDA policy 1320 would not fit the agenda of the new members.

“When I called the action item for election of VP, there was a motion to amend the agenda to include the election of president,’’ Stoker said. “I ruled it out of order for violation of policy 1210.  There was then a motion to suspend policy 1210. I suggested we follow WSSDA policy 1320 as a best practice, but got no support. Motions were subsequently made and approved to elect

Smith president and Decker VP.

“I want to be clear, my efforts and actions were not an attempt to protect my position as president,’’ Stoker said. “I have served as president three times in my 12-year term and I don’t need to do so again.  I also understand that elections have consequences and the will of the majority rules. I respect that. I will say, as an aside, that it is disappointing to have new

directors having served only two hours with me presume that I cannot work with them as board president for the remaining six months in the role. That is unfortunate.’’

Sproul defended the actions of the recently elected members in seeking new leadership.

“It is reasonable that a governing body would want to participate in it’s leadership elections,’’ Sproul said. “Particularly in a year when we have three of five new members, it seemed that calling for new elections just made sense. Both the state RCW and WSSDA policy indicate board elections should take place in the first meeting of a new board. There were multiple approaches I could have taken. According to the VPS board policy, the board chair serves at the pleasure of the board and therefore can be removed at any time with a vote, which would then lead a vacancy to be filled. My intent, however, was simply to call for new elections so our new board could determine it’s leadership.’’

Ironically, Smith voted in favor of Stoker becoming president for a third time in July.

“The current board policy did not take into account the possibility of three new members joining the board at once,’’ Smith explained. “Indeed, this particular instance very well may be unprecedented. While we try to craft policies that are responsive to all situations, we just can’t predict everything. Our current board policy, which allows for board leadership to be selected in July, assumes the majority of the board will carry on through an election cycle. That didn’t happen in this case, and in order to ensure board leadership reflects the will of the majority, policy needed to be suspended. And in light of this situation, it may be appropriate for

us to evaluate and perhaps adjust the policy for the future.

“I was at the meeting in July when Director Stoker was selected board chair,’’ Smith added. “In fact, I made the motion and voted in the affirmative. It was clear at that time that he was the preferred choice of the majority of the board. I believe the person the majority wants as chair is the person that should be selected. It really is as simple as that. It became clear to me that with a majority of the board changing, the collective will of the board with regards to leadership had changed too. If the new majority had wanted to continue with the previous chair, I would have supported that as well.’’

Working together moving forward

The events of Tuesday night would indicate to most observers that there may be a reason to question how the newly constructed board will be able to work together in a cohesive manner moving forward. 

“I do believe there is a right way and a wrong way to approach the work,’’ Stoker said. “In my role as board president, I believe it is important that we respect policy and approach change in a deliberate, thoughtful, and transparent manner.  Our policies are the rules by which the board and the entire district do business. They don’t exist to be enforced only when they fit your agenda, but then simply cast aside when they inconvenience your agenda. The precipitous suspension of an inconvenient policy sets a dangerous precedent and shakes the confidence of those working everyday within the system and its rules.  In other words, anything might be

possible.  Nonetheless, it is my hope and expectation that the board will approach future work with greater care and transparency.’’

Prior to the Nov. 5 general election, in an Op-ed column published by Clark County Today, Stoker expressed concern for the election of union-backed candidates to the school board. Sproul and Barrows were each endorsed by the Washington Education Association.

As far as the issue of transparency, Smith told Clark County Today that she did discuss the business items on the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting with the other board members.

“I had some conversations with the board elects prior to the meeting,’’ Smith said. “I was asked if I was willing to serve as board chair should (I) be nominated. Obviously, I said I was, but only if it was the will of the new majority. So, yes, I did discuss the possibility with the board elects to verify that was the case before agreeing to accept any nomination. Also, I had some conversations specifically with Kyle (Sproul) prior to the meeting to review parliamentary procedure, which can be tricky for those not used to it. I believe she reviewed all of this with Mark beforehand as well.’’

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