Dr. Charles Santa Cruz, Steve Walker

Dr. Charles Santa Cruz, Steve Walker.

The Gilbert Public Schools Governing Board gave its president the ability to shut down a public meeting without having to get the votes to do it in order to maintain decorum. 

The board’s adoption of the policy on a 3-1 vote last Tuesday came at the recommendation of the Arizona School Board Association and with some opposition such as from Steve Walker, who belongs to the 1,600-member Facebook group GPS Education Advocates.

“The purpose of a five-member board is to disallow autocratic power,” Walker said during public comments. “This policy would give the president of the board sole power to recess a public board meeting at his or her discretion. 

“This is an abuse of power. We have seen this abuse of power in surrounding school districts used to muzzle and censor the frustrated citizens of the district speaking out against bad district policies.”

Board meetings have been at times heated during the pandemic over discussions of mask mandates and remote learning. 

Walker said the issue had nothing to do with current board President Charles Santa Cruz.

“This is about all future board presidents who may abuse this power,” Walker said, pointing to a district board policy that states decisions should be made after discussion among board members and never to avoid hearing from frustrated citizens of the district.

And, he said, according to the policy, board members should not surrender their duty as decision-makers to others.

“The question I have is who is it among you that is seeking autocratic power to decide when to recess a meeting in order to effectively muzzle and silence the citizens when they gather to express their discontent with you?” Walker asked. “I suggest that you discard even the thought of relinquishing your individual responsibility.” 

He said ASBA’s suggested change goes against the very purpose of a governing board.

“For those that don’t know the ASBA is the local state association of the NSBA who has been made popular in the news the past couple weeks by calling parents ‘domestic terrorists,” Walker added. “Due to the district’s close association with the NBSA, you might know me as Steve, the domestic terrorist.”

Walker was referencing a letter the NSBA sent in September to the president asking for federal assistance as school board meetings have become unruly and threatening over issues such as mask mandates and “propaganda purporting the false inclusion of critical race theory within classroom instruction critical race theory.”

 In the letter, the national board likened the acts of harassment and violence against school officials as “a form of domestic terrorism.”

Board member Jill Humpherys spoke at length in favor of the change, which has been discussed a number of times in board policy meetings.

“As people have mentioned they don’t want a board president to abuse their position to end a meeting and not allow the input of constituents and I concur that is a valid concern,” she said.

She added she looked into the disruptions that occurred at school board meetings at the Vail School District in April and at the Scottsdale Unified School District in May.

“A lot of times when there have been contentious board meetings it’s not necessarily the community coming in with that contention,” Humpherys said. “It’s outside groups and in the situation in Scottsdale and Vail, the board meetings became so contentious that students who were there for recognition were becoming concerned. 

“So it’s not just the safety of the governing board that we have to consider. It’s the safety of the students and families and staff who are attending those meetings.”

Humpherys said a change in policy won’t stop a board president bent on abusing power.

She said there are three things in place to keep that from happening, including voters who pick the school board members

“You pick candidates who have integrity, dedication, knowledge and empathy with no agenda that they are here for the good of the students and the staff in the public schools,” she said. “And, if things happen the community needs to hold board members accountable.”

Secondly, she said, it’s important for board members to get professional development to help them understand their role.

And third, it was important for board members to build relationships and trust among themselves and the superintendent, according to Humpherys.

“I understand that not everybody agrees with everything that the Arizona School Board Association says or does, neither do I,” she said. “We are a member-driven organization. We have many differences and we try to come together to bridge those differences and move forward for what is good for kids.”

Board member Lori Wood, who voted against the change, wanted the policy to remain the same.

“I do have concern of giving significant power to one board member, the board president in this case, not specifically Dr. Santa Cruz,” Wood said. “I think there’s already a mechanism in place in the policy to address these situations. 

“As a five-member board, we could have a motion and a second and then vote on it and I think that that would be sufficient to address any needs that come up and I would prefer that we keep the policy as is.”

Board member Bill Parker said he was actually in favor of giving the board president the authority, which might be warranted in unique circumstances. 

Humpherys asked Wood if she wanted to reword the policy so she could have buy-in and was willing to table the issue until next month.

Wood responded that at the moment she didn’t have any suggestions other than what is already in place.

Santa Cruz, Parker and Humpherys voted in favor of the new policy. Board member Sheila Rogers Uggetti was absent from the meeting.