The Louisburg school board says it is committed to honesty and integrity and developing awareness, but their handling of complaints about contact tracing shows that is just words on paper. The superintendent withheld information and details of the complaint from the school board and the public, the board president procedurally tried to prevent or at least limit discussion, he did not formally add the discussion to the agenda, and he refused to allow an individual representing district patrons to speak on their behalf even when a patron asked to give her time to that individual. I was that individual.
I signed up to speak in the Public Forum at the USD 416 school board meeting this week on behalf of Louisburg supporters who feared retribution if they appeared themselves. But school board president Jerry Flanagan would not allow me to speak because I don’t live in the district.
I asked Flanagan if it is the district’s official position that patrons who fear retribution for questioning the board are not permitted to send a representative of their choice. He would only say that the board is happy to speak with residents about their concerns, which is the same as saying ‘subject yourself to possible retribution or leave us alone.’
Some Louisburg residents are very disturbed about the district’s lack of transparency and contradictory statements over a contact tracing issue and ongoing contradictory statements from district officials. Residents want the board to identify ways to ensure that it doesn’t happen again and to hold district officials accountable for fully and promptly responding to Open Records requests. The full text of my prepared remarks is here.
The draft minutes of the board meeting don’t reflect that I asked to speak on behalf of residents who feared retribution, and the absence of that important information underscores the district’s effort to silence those who raise concerns about district practices.
Flanagan tried to silence board members
Board members insisted on having a policy complaint regarding the use of photographs taken on personal devices of district staff to generate contact data for possible use in COVID contact tracing placed on the agenda ahead of time but Flanagan did not respond to formal email requests. Board member Douglas Shane asked again at the beginning of the meeting that the complaint be added to the discussion portion of the meeting agenda; Flanagan stalled a bit but said it was covered under Action Item 5.3 – Approve Board Policy Changes. But there wasn’t a policy change related to taking photos for contract tracing, as later evidenced by Flanagan attempting to prevent Shane’s request for the school board to discuss the complaint issue from being discussed once Action Item 5.3 was taken up.
Tiffany Ellison, the parent who initially questioned the use of photos for contact tracing, asked to be heard but Flanagan again tried to avoid the discussion. After Shane forcibly interjected, stating that Ellison deserved to have her complaint heard and that complete information had not been provided to the school board on the matter, Ellison was finally able to speak. Superintendent Brian Biermann interrupted Ellison multiple times, trying to dismiss the validity of Ellison’s complaint by parsing words. Biermann said he told Ellison the district wasn’t taking pictures for contact tracing because the pictures were being taken in case the Miami County Board of Health needed them for contact tracing – a distinction without a difference.
Shane afterward made a motion for the district to stop the practice of taking photos for the creation of contact data, which of course would be used for contact-tracing purposes. He questioned the legality of the practice and expressed concern that the practice is not covered by the district’s consent form permitting for use of photos of students for the school yearbook; he also cited concern about compliance with student privacy laws and emergency management statutes in HB 2016.
Superintendent Biermann continually interjected, saying the district has never done contact tracing – just taking photos to be used for contact tracing. His verbal gymnastics are ironically representative of the district’s tap-dancing that caused the contact tracing controversy in the first place. An email from the principal specifically acknowledges photos were used for tracing, but the district now maintains that it has never done contact tracing. Superintendent Bierman stated in the meeting that he intentionally did not hire or train a contact tracer for the district because he believes that contact tracing is the job of the health department.
But after probing and questioning by Shane, district administrators confirmed that determination of close-contacts was performed by the district and a quarantine order was sent to students on at least one occasion by school administrators. This is another important piece of information that is not reflected in the draft meeting minutes.
Shane’s motion was voted down 3-4, and that raises more questions for parents.
- If the board voted down a proposal to stop taking pictures for ‘data collection,’ does that mean the district will continue taking pictures?
- The district allowed Mrs. Ellison to opt out of having her daughter’s picture taken for tracing purposes, so is her daughter still exempt from having tracing pictures taken? And has the district notified parents that they can opt out of having their children’s pictures taken for ‘data collection?’
The sanitized board meeting draft minutes don’t disclose Flanagan’s attempts to prevent discussion of the contact tracing issue, his attempt to prevent Ellison from speaking, or Biermann’s repeated claims that the district doesn’t do contact tracing but only gathers information to be used for contact tracing.
Resident will run for school board
Some parents expressed their displeasure with the district’s handling of the matter, including Dan Smith. He criticized the board for not allowing someone to speak on behalf of residents who feared speaking out personally.
“Unfortunately, last night was nothing but a show of force on the part of our local school board. I have now been to several school board meetings, and last night was the first time law enforcement had been called in to keep order. I don’t know why the board felt the need when there haven’t been any issues in the past. This was a simple waste of taxpayer money.”
The board meeting was crowded but very well behaved.
Smith also said he is running for a seat on the board this year because he believes the district needs, “more transparency, and representation for the families of our community.”
It’s pretty apparent that parents could use a lot more transparency and integrity from the district.