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Utah state ed board member calls for investigation

Published August 19, 2014 7:32 am

Education • Letter to board members follows rash of resignations, alleges misuse of authority.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Amid a rash of resignations and allegations of inappropriate use of power, at least one state school board member is calling for an independent investigation into board actions.

Board member Terryl Warner of Hyrum, in Cache County, sent a letter to fellow state school board members Sunday night asking for an independent investigation into possible misuse of power and authority by fellow board members. She's also alleging the board discussed topics in closed session that should have been public and that board leaders inappropriately appointed an interim superintendent.

Board Chairman David Crandall said Monday that he is consulting the Utah attorney general's office about the matter. But he said he doesn't know what Warner is referring to specifically when she alleges misuse of power.

Crandall said he doesn't recall inappropriate topics being discussed in closed session, adding that board leaders intended for the full board to officially ratify the interim superintendent appointment at its next meeting.

Warner's letter follows the sudden resignation of the state deputy superintendent earlier this month and an announcement Friday that board leaders had appointed an interim superintendent to replace Martell Menlove, who will retire in the coming weeks, earlier than he previously planned.

"The media knows we have serious problems on the State Board as they report on it regularly, the public knows it, employees at [State Office of Education] are quite aware and it is only a matter of time that the way we are conducting ourselves comes to light," Warner wrote in the letter.

"At this time, I believe I have an ethical obligation to call attention to the current activity; we are not following the law and I, for one, am not willing to face an investigation of misconduct and/or possible prosecution for what I consider to be illegal activity."

Warner, contacted Monday, declined to detail her claim of abuse of power.

In her letter, she wrote that the board discussed more in two recent closed sessions than what they noticed on the agendas for those meetings. During the May 9 meeting, Warner said, the board discussed Menlove's position, but not his character, competence or health — the reasons for which a meeting may be closed. She said that during the Aug. 8 meeting, board members began discussing in closed session possible appointment of an interim superintendent.

"That's not legal," Warner said Monday. "We can't do that."

She wrote that she was so disturbed by the Aug. 8 closed session that she even considered resigning.

Crandall said that a board member will typically speak up if the board strays from discussion of approved topics during closed session, and the discussion will end. Warner didn't say anything during those meetings, Crandall said.

Warner said that as a new member she was caught off-guard. Director of victim services for the Cache County attorney's office, she was appointed to fill the school board position in April.

In her letter, Warner criticized board leaders' selection of an interim superintendent without full board input.

They announced Friday that they had appointed Joel Coleman, current superintendent of the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind.

Coleman has no public school teaching experience, but is a former board member, charter school founder and has spent his career as a seminary teacher and administrator for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

His wife also has a pending lawsuit against state education officials and the state charter school board.

"What I gather is, we are preparing to enter the 2015 legislative session with an interim superintendent who does not hold the qualifications that we, as a board, have decided we want to have in a state superintendent, who hasn't ever been a teacher in a public school system and will try to be both the state superintendent and the superintendent of the Utah Schools of the Deaf and Blind," Warner wrote.

Warner contends that according to the board's own bylaws, the full board should have been involved in the appointment, and it should have been done in a public meeting. She wants the board to hold an immediate public meeting to discuss the issue.

Crandall said Monday it was his understanding that the board wanted leadership to appoint an interim superintendent, since Menlove will be gone before the next monthly board meeting.

Board member Kim Burningham, however, said Monday he agrees with Warner that the full board should appoint an interim superintendent in public.

"It ought to be a matter of more open concern," Burningham said. As for the other closed meetings, he said he doesn't remember what was discussed specifically enough to comment.

Warner is also asking for an explanation as to why the board's audit committee closed its Aug. 7 meeting to the public and Superintendent Menlove.

When asked Monday if he moved up his retirement because he was shut out of that meeting, Menlove declined to comment.

Crandall has acknowledged that the timing of Deputy State Superintendent Brenda Hales' departure likely was related to the closure of that meeting.

Hales had been planning to retire for months, but she decided not to return to work earlier this month, instead using vacation and other leave until her resignation becomes official at the end of the year.

Hales has said no one event in particular led to her resignation.

Warner also said she was surprised to see several board members make what she considered a one-sided presentation opposing renewal of Utah's wavier to the No Child Left Behind law at a superintendents' conference in northern Utah.

"Is this how the State Board of Education operates?" Warner asked in her letter. "Small groups doing their own thing but representing the state board as a whole? Giving one-sided presentations without the knowledge or input from other board members?"

Board members ultimately decided to seek a renewal of Utah's waiver, but only after much discussion and debate. Crandall, who was one of those making the presentation, said Monday he didn't see the presentation as one-sided.

lschencker@sltrib.com

Twitter: @LisaSchencker