Shortly after her election as the Alamance-Burlington school board chairman Monday night, Sandy Ellington-Graves took to the podium to air during the public comments period of the school board’s latest meeting her about a lack of communication and transparency in ABSS during the public comments period of the school board’s latest meeting.
Ellington-Graves made clear she was speaking as a parent and not a school board member after she stepped out from behind the dais and stood at the podium inside the school board’s meeting room at the ABSS Central Office in Burlington Monday night.
Ellington-Graves pointed to a threat of a school shooting last Thursday at Southern High School – where her youngest daughter is a student – to illustrate what she believes is an urgent need for communication in ABSS.
“Last week there was a threat of a school shooting at Southern. Just two days after the deadliest school shooting since 2018,” Ellington-Graves said during the board’s public comments period, referring to the shooting last Tuesday in Oxford, Michigan, in which four students were killed and others injured. “And not one word to parents or students. I am told it wasn’t communicated to the parents because it was handled with ‘discretion’. When my child’s safety is at risk, discretion is not an option. A ConnectEd message was finally sent out – but only after chaos and panic. In my opinion, 24 hours is too late.”
To read Ellington-Graves’ full remarks, click HERE:
ABSS parents are increasingly fearful for their children’s safety at school, due to what Ellington-Graves described as a “growing number of fights and lack of discipline”; daily disruptions; “threats of school shootings”; and “constant conflict.”
Instead, teachers have been assaulted when they tried to intervene or reprimanded for publicly discussing potential threats to students and staff; and School Resource Officers have been told to stand down, based on Ellington-Graves’ description. “I am told 37 teachers at one school are actively looking for other jobs,” she told the board during public comments Monday night.
“We live in a world of social media – where the news breaks first, where the rumors spread the fastest, where discretion doesn’t matter, and where our kids create platforms to upload fight videos,” Ellington-Graves said. “We have real issues across this district.”
“Don’t confuse confidentiality and discretion with deception and secrecy. The best [way] to prevent chaos is to spread the truth so we can’t spread rumors. Our students, our teachers, and our parents deserve better. I am a parent. I am tired. Something has to change before it’s too late.”
– School board member, and new chairman, sandy ellington-graves
Ellington-Graves implored the ABSS administration and school leaders to open the lines of communication with parents, rather than having them learn information from social media and other types of communication where rumors are misrepresented as facts and quickly spiral out of control.
“Tell me when my child is absent, or when it’s Spirit Week, or the heat is broken,” she continued. “But don’t spare me when there is a gun on campus or a drug bust…Don’t confuse confidentiality and discretion with deception and secrecy. The best [way] to prevent chaos is to spread the truth so we can’t spread rumors. Our students, our teachers, and our parents deserve better. I am a parent. I am tired. Something has to change before it’s too late.”
‘Need to know’ culture
Later Monday night, during the regularly-scheduled board and superintendent comments portion of their meeting, Ellington-Graves urged her fellow school board members to set aside whatever differences they may have and focus on the needs of the students and families they were elected to serve.
“Instead our meetings tend to provide live entertainment,” Ellington-Graves said. “I walk into most meetings to hear staff recommendations with limited information and little backstory.
We get meeting agendas on a Thursday or Friday for a Monday or Tuesday meeting with only a few days to prepare. At the meeting, the discussions usually lead to debate where time is often spent debating someone’s differing opinion rather than the topic at hand. As of late, [on] at least two different occasions, if a member votes differently than another expected, it has even been challenged by another board member.”
Recent votes highlight differing philosophies about board’s role
The newly-elected chairman pointed to an ongoing series of 4-3 votes as evidence of a deepening division in the seven school board members’ philosophies about how best to oversee the schools. The board has split on policies such as universal masking in ABSS schools; a four-day reduction in the quarantine for students exposed to Covid-19; and the appointment of ABSS finance officer Jeremy Teetor as acting superintendent in October, after superintendent Dr. Bruce Benson was granted temporary leave due to a medical emergency.
The voting split has remained fairly consistent: Bowden, Ellington-Graves, Simpson, and Westbrooks have rounded out the majority on a number of split votes in recent months, Beam, Gant, and Rose have frequently voted in the minority, usually deferring to accept the recommendations by the ABSS administration.
Some community members have complained to her about how poorly school board meetings are conducted “as they watch via live stream with a bowl of popcorn,” Ellington-Graves said Monday night.
The newly-elected chairman said that only since she joined the board in December 2020 has she realized how little she knows about ABSS, though Ellington-Graves said she has had at least one child enrolled at an ABSS school every year for the past 23 years.
“I learned very quickly when the community started reaching out to me that most folks assumed I was informed,” Ellington-Graves said. “After all, I am a board member, right? Well, clearly I am not. The lack of communication and transparency isn’t just isolated to parents.
“When I asked about issues brought to my attention, I was gently reminded that the board sets policy and procedure, hires the superintendent, and sets the budget,” Ellington-Graves said, apparently alluding to some school board members’ strict, limited interpretation of their role.
“As a board member, I do expect to have a general knowledge of what is going on in our schools,” the new school board chairman said Monday night. “I am pretty sure the public shares this expectation. You send me an email when a school bus loses its mirror, or a trashcan is on fire, or a steam pipe bursts, or a school is broken into overnight. But you don’t send me an email when a school has more fights in one week that all 13 weeks combined or when there is a threat of mass violence at one of our campuses.
“I have seen firsthand board members more concerned about getting their way…without regard to what is best for this district. Shame on us. It is time for this board to hold each other and ABSS leadership accountable to do the work of this district [and] for the public to hold this board accountable” – school board member, and new chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves
“I have seen firsthand board members more concerned about getting their way…without regard to what is best for this district,” the chairman said this week. “Shame on us. It is time for this board to hold each other and ABSS leadership accountable to do the work of this district [and] for the public to hold this board accountable. We cannot expect the community to respect us until we respect each other. We tell our kids they have to earn our trust. Well, the public doesn’t trust us because we haven’t earned theirs.”
Other board members also concerned about safety, mental health
School board member Patsy Simpson – who was also elected as the board’s vice chairman earlier in the evening – also worried about the lack of communication in ABSS.
Simpson said that, while she didn’t think an “actual gun” had been found during the investigation in the threat of a shooting at Southern High School last week, she doesn’t want the school system to be seen as sweeping important information under the rug. Even providing a few details when community members learn of these things could stop the rumor mills, the vice chairman said.
“Last week at Southern alone, [it] was just rumors, rumors, rumors,” Simpson elaborated. She suggested that someone could at least step forward and inform the public in situations such as the shooting threat at Southern High School last week. “Transparency should always, always be at the top,” the vice chairman added, particularly that students have come back after not being in school for a year and a half.
Mental health specialists and other support positions that the board approved – to help students adjust to returning to school in person this year – need to be “very, very visible” in the schools, said Simpson. Instead, the board’s vice chairman said she has visited schools since and asked staff to locate these new specialists, only to find no one knew what she was talking about.
“I know we had those positions that we announced and hired,” the vice chairman said Monday night, adding, “I’m just shocked.”
School board member Ryan Bowden said he thinks the board needs to “double down on safety and security” inside ABSS schools. “I have gotten some reports of doors and windows that were unable to lock when these rumors were going around,” he told his fellow school board members Monday night. “I would like to see these minor things get fixed.”
Board member Donna Westbrooks said she too has received “many messages, emails, texts” regarding various situations in ABSS schools. “I wish I could go in and fix it,” she said. “I’m very concerned about the mental health of our kids and teachers…I love this place; it’s important to me – the people and everything that goes on. I have four grandchildren in [ABSS] and one on the way.”
Meanwhile, other ABSS officials told The Alamance News this week that the SRO at Southern High School had received a tip about the shooting threat, conducted an investigation to identify the source of the threat, and appropriate disciplinary action has been taken.
Read the newspaper’s editorial views on the change in board leadership and Ellington-Graves’ maiden speech on secrecy and lack of community among school officials: https://alamancenews.com/hip-hip-hooray-to-new-school-board-leadership/