In a tense emergency meeting Monday, the Iredell-Statesville School Board members weighed both student safety and control regarding the May 1 teachers’ rally.
In a 5-2 vote, the board decided to hold a virtual school day, where children stay home and complete online schoolwork while teachers have a work day. Board members Ken Poindexter and Todd Carver voted against the motion.
“Unfortunately, this has become a partisan, political event, and both sides are using our children as a rope in a tug-of-war, and that’s not right.” Board Chairman Martin Page said. “I’ve been in education 43 years. This is the saddest day of my life to be involved in public education because our children are being used as a rope in a tug-of-war.”
More than 200 teachers and more than 100 staff, including 70 bus drivers, have requested the day off.
With 70 bus drivers requesting time off, a big topic during the meeting was getting students to and from school.
There are not enough substitutes to fill the roles.
“When you put substitutes on buses, they can drive it, but they’re not familiar with the route,” Assistant Superintendent for Operations Richard Armstrong said.
That poses a security risk, Armstrong explained. Bus drivers know where students should get off or get on. They know who should be meeting students at the bus stop. Substitutes aren’t familiar enough with the routes to avoid every possible safety issue.
Board member Bill Howell asked Armstrong the same question he asked Superintendent Brady Johnson. Why are principals letting the bus drivers take the leave if they know the position can’t be filled?
Armstrong said if principals wanted bus drivers to keep working for I-SS, they would let them go to the May 1 rally.
“In this environment we’re in right now, people have options. They have options every day,” Armstrong said. “We lose as many drivers as we train, right now. We’re losing them every day. We can’t keep up right now.”
Associate Superintendent for Human Resources Alvera Lesane added that not being allowed to go to the rally alone would not cause bus drivers to leave, but it could be the last straw for some drivers.
One of the five legislative goals of the rally is a $15 minimum wage for all school staff. Bus drivers are currently paid $13.
“Why do our principals continue to let people off when they know they can’t run their schools?” board member Howell asked Johnson.
Johnson answered with the board’s attorney’s advice in a memo. The board should not deviate from past practice or it would seem like retaliation against school staff using their rights to free speech.
“Teachers and principals and folks who work in public education are people who are, first of all, very compliant. We are rule-followers, and we try to train children to be rule-followers,” Johnson said. “We are also the kinds of people in the school business that we try to work things out. I would say for most of our principals, when they have a staff member come and ask for a day off, they try to find a way to say yes to them. They try to say yes to them.”
Johnson recalled an instance when a student died during the school year, and the funeral was during the school day. Half of the staff asked off, and the principal found a way to make the day safe and educational while allowing staff to go to the funeral.
When Johnson spoke to I-SS principals, he said he told them to be cautious and not deviate from how they treated leave requests in years past.
“I think what you say is correct up to a point,” Poindexter said. “This year, we’re talking about allowing so many people to take off work that we can’t operate our schools, which is different from allowing one or two people to take off during a normal situation from a year ago. Remember, one of the criteria is, according to our policy, that the school has to be able to operate.”
Johnson asked the board to give the school administration exact guidance if the members wanted staffs’ leave requests to be denied.
Page said the board would discuss changes to the policy surrounding leave requests in the future and suggested a five-percent cap of staff allowed off per school.
Though principals are responsible for approving the leave requests of staff in their buildings, Page said the board had decided it did not want principals speaking at the meeting.
“It’s a question of control,” Poindexter said. “Are we going to allow the bus drivers to control us or are we going to run the school system to a point where our kids are taken care of and get to the places they need to be?”
Virtual school day
Board members had four options to choose from: a regular school day, a virtual student day, an optional teacher work day or schools open with different transportation.
Director of Elementary Instruction Jonathan Ribbeck said a large number of substitutes correlate with behavior issues.
Johnson said it would be “very questionable” to run schools safely, and the only way to do so would be to deny leave requests.
Carver made a motion to continue with a regular school day and to deny leave requests. The motion failed by a 3-4 vote. Carver, Poindexter and Howell voted for it. Page and board members Samuel Kennington, Charles Kelly and Charles Gallyon II voted against the motion.
After discussion of all four options, a motion was made for the virtual student day. In a 5-2 vote, the board approved a virtual school day. Poindexter and Carver cast the dissenting votes.
Students will have three days to complete online assignments.
In a moment of optimism, Page said it would be an opportunity for I-SS to see how successful virtual days are. The days were originally designed for snow days.
Previously scheduled field trips will be allowed and all scheduled extracurricular activities will continue as planned, Kennington said.
“God forbid one child was hurt. One child was hurt out of our 20,000 students, we would never ever live it down,” Kennington said.