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Virginia Beach School Board tensions peak with contentious talks about board conduct, Superintendent complaint

Board members will review a new resolution aimed at changing behavior. The three-hour discussion stemmed from a July complaint from Superintendent Dr. Aaron Spence.

A three-hour meeting about FOIA laws, personal attacks, abusive conduct and Facebook pages highlighted the growing discontent among Virginia Beach School Board members Tuesday night.

School board members will review a resolution, soon to be crafted by the board's legal counsel Kamala Lanetti, aimed at changing board member conduct and behavior. But any true consensus about how the board will set aside personal differences and address concerns from Superintendent Dr. Aaron Spence seemed out-of-reach at the after-hours meeting.

The discussion was sparked by a complaint by a complaint that Superintendent Spence filed on July 18.

He cited Virginia Code 22.1-291.4, saying he has experienced  "abusive conduct" from board members that led to a hostile work environment.

Among the complaints, Spence cited comments on school board member Victoria Manning's Facebook page - a page he says operates as an official public forum - that alleged Spence used city funds for prostitution at a Virginia Beach hotel. 

Manning later posted that the hotel charges were, in fact, used to pay for rooms for consultants visiting for professional development. Manning wrote "I have never suggested that the hotel charges were for any type of inappropriate or illegal activity and do not support any postings that make those types of allegations."

Spence said he wanted to start a conversation with board members: What responsibility do they have to maintain their public forums to make sure the conversation is appropriate and accurate?

He said these allegations were damaging to his wife, family and personal reputation, and also distracting from his work with the school division. Spence said he's used to public criticism but "at some point, the straw breaks the camel's back."

Spence's complaints and board member behavior were discussed in a closed session meeting on August 13.

After the meeting, an attorney representing school board members Victoria Manning, Laura Hughes and Carolyn Weems sent a letter to VBCPS arguing that the meeting was illegal and should have been public. Attorney Kevin Martingayle said it violated the state's open meeting laws.

Martingayle also stated the superintendent doesn't have the right to file a grievance as an appointed leader of the school division, even though he functions as an employee of the school board. Lanetti and others disagreed with this interpretation and the school board did not decide how to properly handle Spence's complaints Tuesday night.

Spence said when he was asked about his complaints being discussed in closed session he agreed with the decision, saying "he didn't want to create this, a conversation about Facebook posts."

Manning and Weems said their discontent isn't due to Spence's complaints, but rather with the action of discussing the complaints in a closed meeting, which they view as illegal and in violation of open records laws.

"We're getting away here, we're not following the law," Weems said.

Other board members said the entire three-hour discussion was a distraction from the board's purpose - "focusing on the kids."

At the end of the meeting, the board loosely agreed to review a forthcoming resolution featuring some heavily-debated language.

For one, the board agreed "to the extent that the discussion in closed session regarding accusations of wrongdoing was inappropriate, it will not be done again."

This statement was in response to complaints from Manning, Weems and Hughes that other board members strayed off-topic during the closed meeting, accusing Manning of misconduct. The board members did not agree that this discussion was irrelevant to Spence's complaint, which is reflected in the non-committal language of "to the extent."

The board also agreed that "school board members will not infringe upon the free speech and expression of other members, and school board members will make an effort to be more vigilant, alert and responsive to social media pages and sites."

Board members did not agree with how to address Spence's complaints about his treatment in the future, whether that results in a grievance hearing or some other action. That topic is still up for discussion and the board will review all information at a later date.


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