As Salt Lake City school board members grappled with how to best teach students this fall — before ultimately deciding to continue with online-only classes — their disagreements boiled over into vulgarities and insults hurled at each other, at parents and at principals.
Board member Katherine Kennedy sent several texts to the board’s president after a heated meeting ran longer than its scheduled time in July, saying “I f***ing HATE YOU.” Two other members exchanged messages attacking West High Principal Jared Wright, with one calling him “a tool” and commenting “Ef Jared.”
They also complained about those who wanted their kids to return to school in person, suggesting they were being annoying. Board Vice President Nate Salazar wrote: “So, how many ‘the silent majority doesn’t support you’ emails do we have to get to know we’ve made it?”
Sam Hanson, whose jurisdiction includes East High School, responded, “I don’t know but I think we’re getting there. For a ‘silent’ group, they’re pretty whiny.”
The messages were released in response to a public records request by parent Raina Williams, who has five children in the district. They were first reported by FOX13, which is a content sharing partner with The Salt Lake Tribune.
Parents criticized the messages during the public comment period at the board’s virtual meeting Tuesday night, with some pressing the board to reopen schools and others arguing to stay online. Almost all, though, suggested the members needed to overcome their divisions. One mom advised: “Tune out the personal attacks and hostile criticism." Another said those involved in sending the texts should resign.
Board members didn’t address the comments until more than three hours later, near the end of the meeting. As the board discussed changes to its ethics policy — related to how a student member is selected — member Mike Nemelka said he had a statement to make. He then said he was planning to file a legal complaint against Kennedy, Salazar and Hanson.
“I want you three to know you have negated any positive decisions this board has made and made us a laughing stock of this whole state,“ he said. “ ... I am disgusted in the way you acted and the things you did in secret."
For a moment, no one responded. But then President Melissa Ford urged further discussion take place “not in an open session.”
“It’s been a rough couple days for us as a board and we’ve taken a hit," she said. “I think we can move forward from this.”
The hundreds of pages of text and email exchanges released show a board that appears deeply divided and prone to lashing out. And they follow earlier acrimonious meetings this past year that included firing a principal for driving home students who were found drunk on campus, as well as forcing out the former district superintendent and having the previous board president quit.
Many of the messages centered around a July 21 meeting to discuss plans for returning to school in the fall. Williams, who helped lead a summer rally calling for the district to reopen in person, said she submitted her records request to see who on the board first suggested all-remote instruction.
There isn’t a clear answer. Before the meeting, members questioned whether the district should be the only one in the state to keep its doors closed. Salt Lake City was then at a moderate restriction level, which would have prevented in-person classes.
But after the governor changed the rules to let the district reopen in person, several board members balked. “That’s going to add to the parent pressure,” Salazar noted.
The July 21 meeting started at 4 p.m. and almost immediately erupted into discord, garnering statewide attention for the open conflict among members.
Nemelka, who represents most of the west side schools, played solitaire on his computer, wrapped in a blanket, while several members shouted over each other. Remote learning, he chipped in, doesn’t work. And he suggested teachers support it because it’s “easier," calling it “just a lazy way of attempting to teach children."
Salazar made fun of Nemelka, the messages show, texting to Hanson: “He’s got his blanket …”
The next outburst came before any vote was taken, when Kennedy pushed to end the meeting. She said she had made a commitment to her daughter and was promised by Ford that the meeting would end before 6 p.m.
Ford tried to move forward to give parents answers, but Kennedy continued to mention the time and at one point called for an end to the debate while Ford was in the middle of a sentence.
Kennedy told The Tribune on Tuesday that she was “frustrated by the lack of leadership" at the time, and she noted that she sent the messages that included profanity to Ford after the meeting was adjourned.
“You promised me,” she wrote in the first text. Then Kennedy quickly sent five more. “You f***ing promised me.” “I f***ing HATE YOU.” “F*** YOU.” “I will never trust you again.” “You are not trustworthy.”
It doesn’t appear Ford responded. Ford sent screenshots of the messages to the district as part of its response to the public records request. She did not comment to The Tribune, but confirmed to FOX13 that she received the texts.
Kennedy told The Tribune that Ford later apologized to the public for the behavior by every board member at the meeting, and said she believes that stands. She also noted the board voted the following week 6-1 in agreement to move to remote learning.
“It’s not a story about texts. It’s a story about COVID," she said Tuesday. “We made a decision on July 30 to save lives."
She also said that she believes the board is not dysfunctional. “Do we get mad at each other? Yes, we do,” Kennedy said. "But I don’t think there’s a lot of dysfunction on our board. There’s a lot of people that care about students and that represent different areas and different constituencies.”
The district’s spokeswoman, Yándary Chatwin, declined to comment on the conversations.
At least three board members — Nemelka, Salazar and Michelle Tuitupou — did not provide any copies of their conversations to the district.
Tuitupou told the public records officer that she regularly deletes her texts, though she and Salazar are included in some sent in by other members. She did not respond to calls Tuesday.
Additionally, only messages that Kennedy sent to the district superintendent were provided. The messages she sent to Ford were provided by Ford. Kennedy, though, said she “gave everything that was in my texts.”
It also appears some of the messages provided from other board members, such as Hanson, are missing pieces of the conversation.
It was up to individual members to share screenshots of their conversations with the district to release for the request, which they are required to do as public officials. Not complying and keeping records of those exchanges is illegal, though.
Meanwhile, Nemelka said he didn’t have anything relevant to the request. The 80-year-old told The Tribune that he doesn’t like technology and usually doesn’t respond to emails from his constituents.
He said he now believes educators should have a choice whether to teach online or in person — and that the district should offer both options to students. He also said he stopped playing solitaire at meetings after many found it disrespectful.
During the next meeting, though, Salazar texted Hanson about Nemelka again: “No blanket …” Hanson responded: “Poor man — he’s been shamed!” Salazar sent back: “Haha.. about time!”
Salazar declined to comment. And Hanson did not answer calls Tuesday.
Another email sent by Kennedy on July 8 went to all of the board members except Nemelka. She wrote: “I have not bothered to send it to Mr. Nemelka, since I doubt he will be receptive." It was a news story about issues with schools reopening in hot spots in other states. She did so again on Aug. 12 when sharing links to articles about football games.
According to Utah law, that could be considered illegal for breaking rules on quorum for public boards, which is considered any majority of a leadership body.
On Tuesday, Kennedy noted she included the phrase “please do not respond" in both emails so that the messages wouldn’t lead to a discussion. That means the messages would not be subject to open meeting laws, she asserted; describing the content as just “informational text.”
Kennedy also noted that her emails were about the impacts of the virus on teachers, and she “did not want to exasperate or make him angry," she said, referring to Nemelka.
Nemelka responded: “They leave me out a lot. They don’t like the philosophy I have. And they do everything behind my back.” He complained about them, too, suggesting some of the members have never taught before or don’t have children — but are trying to decide what happens for parents and students.
“I didn’t realize it’s as bad as it was,” he added. “Being on the school board is the biggest crock I’ve ever seen.”
He also called for Kennedy to resign over the profane messages she sent to Ford. He said: “If she was a teacher or an employee and said that, she’d be fired.”
He also sent a message to Ford that was included in the emails from the public records request. In that, on July 30, he said: “Melissa you cannot bridle my tongue. … Don’t suppose that you and the superintendent can shut me up.”
‘This is disappointing’
Several parents and community members wrote to the board with concerns about how the July 21 meeting was conducted. One person said Kennedy “made some very disturbing comments that make me fear for the future health of the Salt Lake City School District.” Another chastised both Nemelka and Kennedy.
“I am sorry you found my behavior unprofessional,” Kennedy wrote in response to one complaint. “I believe you are wrong, and I would like to provide you with the following additional information.”
“I did not expect to be mentioned as the cause of the end of the meeting,” Kennedy noted, “and I certainly did not expect to have to insist over and over that the meeting should end.”
Kennedy also responded to Williams, the parent who submitted the records request. “Should you wish to have your children in school full time, I remind you that due to Utah’s wonderful open enrollment laws, you are able to transfer to any school that has an opening,” Kennedy wrote in an email shared with The Tribune.
Several of the messages show similar clashes with parents — with some pushing for and others against reopening in person.
Williams is mentioned at least once directly by member Tuitupou in a text to Hanson. Tuitupou writes: “I saw that Raina person’s email to you. Ooohhh wee!” Hanson responds by suggesting that “some of these people are living on a different planet.”
Hanson and Salazar, who both pushed for school to start online, ask if another mother has been “brainwashed” because she believes “remote learning is a farce.”
Williams said she was shocked to see the exchanges among board members and that she was mentioned. She has two computers to share among her five kids and said learning at home doesn’t work for her family. Several on the board, she added, have refused to listen to her or seemed to have brushed her off as crazy.
“This is how they speak to each other and stakeholders and district employees and principals,” Williams said. “This is disappointing. I had no clue at the dysfunction or the bullying that was happening.”
She first filed the records request in early August and appealed several times to get the emails and texts. She’s currently fighting to get additional exchanges that she believes have been withheld.
A principal in the crossfire
Board members also directed some anger toward school principals. At one point, Salazar called West High Principal Jared Wright “a tool.” Salazar’s frustration appears to be over Wright supporting the district going to a hybrid schedule with at least some classes taught in person.
Wright had written to the board, saying holding classes entirely online would “certainly have a negative impact on students.”
“Ef Jared,” Salazar said in a message to Hanson.
Additionally, Kennedy sent an email to other board members saying Wright was “never on the District’s team as most other principals are.”
Wright fired back and commented during the live video, typing: “Katherine Kennnedy [sic] is lying about what I want. She has no integrity.”
Kennedy declined to comment on Wright. The principal, though, said Tuesday that he has since spoken directly with Salazar about the messages and moved on. “We had a good, open conversation,” he added.
He also said he understands that trying to navigate schooling during COVID-19 has been difficult for those in leadership. “I don’t hold any ill will,” he said. “We’re all stressed. We’re all strained. I just hope we can debate and be kind about it in the future."