John Phillips told the members of the Oconee County Board of Education on Monday that they need to exert direct leadership and oversight of the management of the school district.
He also said the Board should commission an unbiased survey of parents and conduct and commission an independent study of the leadership culture, decision-making, and communications of the current school administration.
Phillips, who has children in the Oconee County school system, owns a consulting firm that he said provides executive services, including leadership training and board training, to nonprofits, universities, and federal agencies.
The recommendations to the Board, Phillips said in the citizen comment section of the Board’s regular meeting on Monday, result from a study he did of community emails that Oconee County Schools received last summer related to its reopening plan.
The analysis of those emails showed no evidence that the plan put into place has majority community support or that there was strong opposition to a mask mandate.
What the study did show, he said, was that emails forwarded to the Board by the administration showed more support for school policy that the emails themselves indicated.
Phillips was one of eight speakers who addressed the Board at Monday’s meeting. All of the others asked the Board to impose a mask mandate, and the five students who spoke said the current policy of only recommending masks is failing.
Phillips, who has a doctorate from the University of Missouri in rural sociology, said he examined email he obtained from an open records request he submitted to Oconee County Schools in September of 2020.
|Phillips As He Prepares To Speak To Board|
He said the request produced “thousands of emails,” but he focused his analysis on 227 emails from community members received by Superintendent Branch from July 1 to Sept. 4.
Phillips said he coded each email as “supportive or critical of the reopening plan” that Superintendent Jason Branch had announced for the coming school year.
Phillips told the Board that the emails provided “no evidence that a majority of the community supports the reopening plan, or in other words, that those who oppose the reopening plan are in the minority.”
Of the 227 emails, 41 percent were in support of the plan, and 56 percent were critical of the plan, he said.
The comments also showed “no evidence of strong opposition to a mask requirement,” Phillips said.
Only 22 percent of the supportive emails even mentioned masks, Phillips said.
“This suggests that the current mask policy may not be the most salient issue to those who support the reopening plan and rather, keeping schools open may be their primary issue,” he told the Board.
Phillips said he next focused on how Branch shared the 227 emails from the community members and looked specifically at how often and broadly they were shared within school system leadership.
“Critical e-mails were forwarded/copied an average of 7.2 times, usually to the OCS leadership team of directors and occasionally a principal or other staff,” Phillips wrote in the report of his research.
“On the other hand, supportive e-mails were forwarded an average of 11.4 times,” Phillips wrote.
“The 4.2 difference is largely accounted by the Superintendent forwarding/copying to the BOE members,” the report states.
“The Superintendent sent on average more supportive e-mails to the BOE than critical e-mails,” according to the report. “In fact, there were no instances where critical e-mails were sent to the BOE unless BOE members were included as recipients on the original e-mail.”
Phillips gave a copy of his report to the Board at the meeting and, upon my request, forwarded a copy to me.
Phillips directed his recommendations to the Board and said it should commission “an independent study of leadership’s culture, decision making and communications” to confirm the findings of his study.
The Board also “should learn the true level of community support for a mask requirement” by commissioning “an unbiased survey of parents.”
“Finally, the Board should exert direct leadership and oversight into the management of the school district,” Phillips said. “There is evidence that the Superintendent is indeed making de facto policy by manipulating the decision making of the Board.
“If true, then the Board must reassert its leadership and ensure that it has an accurate understanding of the situation,” Phillips said.
“Community members, taxpayers, and local media must hold the Board accountable to lead in these critical times,” Phillips said. “Future requests for tax support should be viewed within this context.”
Phillips told the Board he is the executive director of a nonprofit and works with a five-member board.
According to his LinkIn page, he is executive director of First Americans Land-Grant Consortium, principal, John Phillips Consulting, and Land Grant director, American Indian Higher Education Consortium. Phillips confirmed the listing in an email exchange.
Phillips also has been working with the First Amendment Clinic in the School of Law at the University of Georgia on public access to Board meetings and related free speech issues.
Phillips had registered in advance to speak and had been given five minutes for his comments.
He was followed by Andrea Wellnitz, who has been a frequent speaker at Board meetings and also was allowed five minutes for her comments. She expressed her concern for teachers and staff and repeated her request for a mask mandate.
Wellnitz was followed by six speakers who did not register in advance and were allotted three minutes to talk.
Four of those who spoke identified themselves as students at North Oconee High School. One identified herself as a student. And one identified herself as a parent of one of the students from North Oconee High School who spoke.
The students emphasized that many students–they estimated about a quarter–do not wear masks.
Alex Womack, a senior at North Oconee, said he was one of three students who organized a petition asking the Board to adopt a mask mandate and a hybrid learning model. He said his focus now is on a mask mandate.
More than 3,100 persons have now signed the petition, he said, and he was concerned that, though many are not students or parents, their signatures not be dismissed. All have involvement with the schools, he said.
All of those who spoke at the meeting did so through a mask.
As is the norm, the Board did not respond to any of the speakers.
The video below is of the Feb. 8 meeting of the Board of Education.
Julia Fechter, reporter at The Oconee Enterprise, recorded the video.
I am not able to attend meetings for health reasons, and Fechter and I have agreed to record the meetings and upload them to my Vimeo site to create an independent public record of meetings.
Public comment begins with an explanation of procedures for citizen comment by Board Vice Chair Kim Argo at 21:51 in the video.