Procedure of IRSD board presidency vote debated

GEORGETOWN — For a second time this month, Rodney Layfield has been voted president of the Indian River School District board of education.

In a public do-over during the Monday school board meeting, Mr. Layfield received unanimous support from the nine other board colleagues — three weeks after he was elected by anonymous secret-ballot election that took three votes.

Rodney Layfield

Prior to the vote, Mr. Layfield referenced that election, saying, “In order to correct that secret-ballot vote, we want to vote publicly for the president this evening.”

On Aug. 3, after three secret-ballot votes, Mr. Layfield was elected by a 6-4 margin over Leolga Wright, who was subsequently unanimously elected board vice president. The decisive 6-4 vote followed an initial 5-5 deadlock and 5-4-1 tally favoring Mr. Layfield, which failed to garner the required six votes.

In November 2019, the Delaware attorney general’s office determined that the Christina School District failed to comply with the Freedom of Information Act during its Oct. 8, 2019, anonymous vote to fill a board vacancy. To comply with FOIA, the attorney general’s office recommended that the Christina board “conduct a roll-call vote or otherwise vote again on the matter in open public session in such a way that the public may observe how every member is voting.”

Traditionally, IRSD’s board of education has utilized secret ballots in selecting board leadership where elections are contested.

But that selection process is stirring debate.

“Initially, our attorney had given us guidance that we could either do a secret ballot or we (publicly) vote, correct?” said board member Heather Statler on Monday.

Heather Statler

IRSD Superintendent Jay Owens said the board’s legal counsel, attorney James H. McMackin III of the Morris James law firm, “had indicated to do a roll-call vote.”

Dr. Statler asked for the language in the legal advice. “Where is the language from the attorney? I am just trying to figure out where this arrives from,” said Dr. Statler.

“I don’t have the language in front of me tonight. I could certainly get that,” said Dr. Owens. “(Mr. McMackin) had indicated that it is in code that we should have an open vote for this position.”

Board member Donald Hattier opposed the public/roll-call vote, saying school board members are considered “employees” in the eyes of the state and, therefore, should be afforded the same protection as paid employees of the district.

Donald Hattier

“Whether we are paid or not, according to the state of Delaware, we are listed as employees,” said Dr. Hattier. “And if you are going to have an employee vote, the slate should have been set up in an … executive committee meeting, in which case, if you’re going to (then) vote publicly, you vote for ‘Candidate A’ or ‘Candidate B or C,’ which is what we have done with everything else. So, if that is what we are going to be doing in the future, then those slates of candidates need to be decided before we leave an executive committee meeting.”

Dr. Hattier continued, saying: “I think that is why in the past, this has not been a problem because that is what we’ve done. Then, you would come out of the executive committee, and then, that is where the vote was held. Even in the organizational meetings that we’ve had in the past, the executive portion was closed to the public because it is executives, and the vote portion was always in the public.”

Dr. Hattier said the board members are deemed district employees.

“As odd as it sounds for not being paid, they still consider us an employee. I’ve tried to get that corrected for my entire time on the board, and everybody goes, ‘I don’t know how to do it,’” he said. “So, like it or not, we’re employees. We are entitled to the protection of an employee, and we’re entitled to that executive session beforehand to establish the slate. Voting in public the way they did would not be correct. It would be a violation of our, or at least my, personal rights, the way I look at it.”

Regardless of his disagreement, Dr. Hattier then nominated Mr. Layfield for board president. “If we have to do this again, I’m going to nominate Mr. Layfield for president,” he said.

A stance opposing anonymous voting was rendered by Linda Teplica, who in public commentary at the Aug. 19 special school board meeting criticized the IRSD board for its secret ballot vote Aug. 3.

“Regardless of tradition or your personal preference, that vote should have been held by roll call. I believe since you have been voted into this position, you are not considered personnel, and you’re not entitled to secret-ballot box for voting,” Ms. Teplica said Aug. 19.

“If you are not willing to be transparent and abide by the Freedom of Information Act, I am perplexed as to why you ran for this position. Furthermore, I can’t think of a valid reason for secret ballot except to play politics. Another district school board was reprimanded by the Delaware AG because they use secret ballots, as it subverts the requirements of the Delaware Freedom of Information Act. And given the horrible state of our national situation with politics, it is troubling to me that even our own local people, our friends and neighbors, won’t be transparent and assume responsibility for their actions.”

At the Monday meeting, Ms. Wright also was nominated for board president by Dr. Statler, but she withdrew as a candidate for that position.

Leolga Wright

“Transparency is fine with me. I don’t know that we did anything officially wrong that can be documented at this point in time,” said Ms. Wright. “I personally think that we have more pressing things at hand than the structure of this board, because again, we are 10 people in unison. We can’t act as an individual. We may not always agree but, at the end, I hope our goal is that we are going to do what is best for our students and for our staff and for the schools that we represent.”

Ms. Wright continued, withdrawing her name as a candidate for president.

“Having said that, I was duly elected as the vice president at (the Aug. 3) meeting. So, there would be no vote on that tonight,” she said. “With that said, I hereby wish to withdraw my name as a candidate for president of the Indian River School District board of education.”

Ms. Wright said that with COVID-19 and the reopening of schools in the Indian River School District: “I believe it bests serves the Indian River School District in my belief that we be able to move forward and be on the same page. We may not always agree but, at the end of the meetings, we will take it in stride and come back the next month, and we’ll work with the president again.”

Mr. Layfield assumes the presidential reins held for many years by Charles Bireley, whose term ended July 31 after 43 years on the board. Mr. Layfield served as board vice president last year.