Salt Lake City school board apologizes for vulgar messages, agrees to remedial trainings

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune file photo ) Melissa Ford, president of the Salt Lake City school board, detailed the district's restart plans for the 2020-21 school year at a news conference on July 30, 2020. The board now has apologized for vulgar and inappropriate texts and emails they exchanged while debating that plan.

Realizing they have lessons to learn about how to serve the public, members of the Salt Lake City school board are sending themselves back to school.

Five members of the board issued an apology Wednesday for vulgar and inappropriate texts and emails they exchanged while working through a heated debate about whether to return kids to in-person classes this fall during the coronavirus outbreak.

In addition to the apology, the board agreed to two remedial educational sessions. One will be a discussion on professional and ethical responsibilities of members of the Salt Lake City School District’s board of education. That will take place during the board’s Nov. 17 or Dec. 1 meeting.

The other will be a training by the board’s lawyers on the Open and Public Meetings Act and on the Public Officers and Employee’s Ethics Act. Its scheduling is subject to the availability of the board attorney.

Both sessions will be public.

“We are deeply sorry for breaking your trust and for causing hurt to constituents about whom we care deeply,” the board wrote in the apology, which was emailed to parents in the school district.

“This moment provides us with an opportunity to reflect, to commit to do better, and to focus on real change and the promising future of the Salt Lake City School District. We are committed to working together to rebuild the reputation of the Board and to restoring your trust, not only in our leadership, but also in this amazing district. We are determined to get this right.”

The messages came to light after parent Raina Williams, who has five children in the district, made a public records request for correspondence among the board members. They were first reported Oct. 20 by FOX-13, which is a content-sharing partner with The Salt Lake Tribune.

Among the text and email exchanges contained in the hundreds of pages of messages, board members attacked each other, school principals and even their own constituents. After a July 21 board meeting ran late, Katherine Kennedy sent board President Melissa Ford a series of inflammatory texts. One read “I f***ing HATE YOU;" Ford did not respond. When parents complained about the board’s plan to start school online, board member Sam Hanson called them “pretty whiny.”

Not all members of the board signed the apology, however. Michael Nemelka and Kristi Swett, both of whom are up for reelection this year, refrained.

Swett, whose precinct is the Sugar House area, submitted texts in accordance with the public records request but does not appear to have been entangled in the controversy. Yándary Chatwin, the school district’s spokesperson, confirmed more record requests have been received and the release of more messages may be forthcoming.

Nemelka, who represents most of the schools on the district’s west side, has been the subject of several barbed messages exchanged between other board members. When the comments were brought up at the end of the board’s most recent meeting, he announced he was planning to file a legal complaint against Kennedy, Hanson and Nate Salazar, the board’s vice president.

Chatwin said that complaint was officially filed last week and that the board’s attorney has 20 days to provide a response on the validity of the claim.

She added, however, that all seven board members agreed to take the classes. “I do know that all seven of them are on board with having these trainings and the facilitated conversation,” she said.

The board’s next meeting is scheduled for Tuesday at 4 p.m.

Nemelka had played solitaire on his computer, wrapped in a blanket, during the contentious July board meeting, while several members shouted over each other. A former teacher, he said teachers support online education because it’s “easier,” calling it “just a lazy way of attempting to teach children.”

He did not provide any copies of his conversations to the district; he said he didn’t have anything relevant to the request. He told The Tribune that he doesn’t like technology and usually doesn’t respond to emails from his constituents.