Tempers flared during the School Board meeting Tuesday night leading one board member to issue a stern warning to another.
“Mr. Bennett you’re entitled to every opinion that you have, but you are not going to bully us on this board. We take every effort to combat bullying in this school system and you are not excluded from this,” School Board chair Tanya Bess told James Bennett.
The temperature began to rise in the WCHS auditorium when School Board member Helen Martin made a motion to reelect Tanya Bess as chairman of the board during the meeting.
“I’d like to say we’re still not following the protocol of the board where the vice chair moves up and we elect a brand new vice chairman,” said School Board vice chairman James Bennett.
The motion to reelect Bess had been made and seconded in the August meeting and Bess had received the majority of the votes from board members in attendance, Bennett being the only opposition. However, Sue Anderson wasn’t present and Bess abstained, therefore the 3-1 vote wasn’t enough to appoint Bess as chair, a move which requires 4 votes.
Bennett voiced the opinion in August that the board was straying from protocol by not having the vice chairman assume the role of chair. Director of Schools Grant Swallows and the board discussed this and concluded protocol was not policy.
Tuesday night, Bill Zechman seconded Helen Martin’s motion that Bess retain her position as School Board chair. Bess opened the motion for discussion.
“I know what this is. This is personal against me,” Bennett said. “So it was already preplanned before the last meeting that this was the way it was going to be and I know what it stems from. It stems from what was printed in the paper back in May. I’m very disappointed that my colleagues are acting this way. The public sees it and I think that’s enough said from me.”
“I have something to say,” said Helen Martin. “I have kept quiet about this and I hope I don’t say too much. I cannot feel that I have fulfilled my duty and responsibility to the district that voted me in to the person who sent an email saying that he would not support Grant. I cannot feel that I can have a chairman in that place who will not support the director.”
“We all chose the director but you and that’s OK,” Martin added. “When I went to TSBA as a new member they said if your vote or your decision is not passed, you are not to go out and be against the others. Get in there and join with them and make it a good solution.”
“You also told me that you didn’t have anything to say to me.” Martin continued. “How could I vote you as chairman if you won’t even speak to me? I spoke to you tonight and you did not respond. That’s just my feelings about it. I cannot do it.”
“What you don’t realize and understand is I went to this man right here face to face and explained what happened and why I said what I said,” Bennett responded pointing to Swallows. “Because I know that prior to the interviews that Ms. Bess had said she was supporting Mr. Swallows and there hadn’t been interviews.”
“It wasn’t because my wife didn’t get the job. That had nothing to do with it,” continued Bennett. “What I was upset about and what I’m upset about now is the way that it was handled.”
“I feel like we were real transparent in our interviews,” Martin replied.
“I don’t. Here’s a woman sitting to my left and she’s never been the vice chair,” Bennett said gesturing toward Bess. “It’s her third year. We’re not transparent.”
“Well,” interjected Zechman. “Let me say this because there’s an allegation in the air that this board has somehow, if I understand it correctly Mr. Bennett, covertly and in violation of the state’s open meetings law, devised the election of Mr. Swallows and the election of Tanya as chairperson in secret. If that happened I didn’t know anything about it and I was not a party to it. So as one member of the board I’m just going to say that I flatly reject and dismiss any allegation that Mr. Swallows’ appointment and Tanya’s reelection as chair was done in secret. It did not happen.”
“Mr. Bennett, you know I didn’t vote for Mr. Swallows,” Sue Anderson said. “Even though I didn’t vote for him I support him 100%. I appreciate Mr. Swallows. I think he’s doing an outstanding job and I’m not aware of what you’re talking about, sir.”
“I’ve told Mr. Swallows many times that I support him 100% and I do,” replied Bennett. “I want that made perfectly clear because the paper indicated that I probably would not do that. I support all students, teachers, and employees 100% in the Warren County School System as long as I sit on this board and I’m going to make the best decisions for those students, teachers, and employees.”
“But all we had was your text that said you would not, that we had made the worst decision there was,” Martin explained. “That’s all we had.”
“I’d like to add something please,” said Bess. “You definitely made those statements on Facebook. OK, fine. You went to Director Swallows and that’s OK. Good, I’m glad you did. But that text message that you sent us immediately regarding Grant and the discrimination of your wife …”
“No, that’s not got anything to do with it,” Bennett interrupted.
“Let me finish please,” Bess said. “You also said you did not support Grant Swallows and you also stated that he was the worst possible choice. I’m not here to defend myself or to negotiate that statement because I have it right here,” said Bess pointing to her phone.
“Our board has prided itself on transparency. With current technology we’re continuing to do this. With choosing our director and all interviews being broadcast for the public to see in real time and our meetings online as well.”
“Let me also add that at one time or another you have lashed out to each board member,” added Bess. “I’m not going to explain their story but I’ll explain mine.”
“For me it was in the parking lot after last month’s meeting,” Bess said. “You waited on me.”
“I came around to see you, yes I did,” said Bennett.
“You actually sat in your truck and waited on me and then got out of your truck and approached to say a few things,” said Bess.
“I sure did,” Bennett said. “I’m not trying to bully the board. I’m not trying to bully anybody on this board, I’m just stating my main objective is I’m going to make the best decisions for this school system. That’s the bottom line.”
The board voted to reelect Bess as chair with Bennett being the only nay.
“I’m going that way because we’re not following protocol,” said Bennett.
“We’ll get past this,” said Zechman after the vote. “I invite Mr. Bennett and all members to compose their differences and set their sights on the job in front of us. That’s to educate every child every day and do it with the utmost attention to safety. That’s the job ahead of us.”