The new year means fresh leadership and a renewed promise to the students for the Williamsburg-James City County School Board.
The first meeting of each year is filled with congratulations and rounds of applause as new board members take the reins for the next year. The meeting also includes the members' annual discussion of the Virginia School Board Association Code of Conduct.
At the board's Jan. 3 work session, women came out on top as Kyra Cook (Williamsburg) was elected as chair. She took over for outgoing chair Jim Kelly (JCC Jamestown) right away — gavel hand off and all.
"You taught me that lesson … if you keep it about the students, you always do the right thing," Cook said to Kelly on the dais during board comments. "I'm going to carry that lesson forward for the rest of my time on this board."
Holly Taylor (JCC Stonehouse) was selected vice chair while Julie Hummel (Williamsburg) assumed the position of parliamentarian.
After leadership positions were confirmed, Cook introduced the VSBA Code of Conduct, a document the board has signed each January for at least three years.
The code includes 12 line items which includes promises such as supporting the development of all children, attending all board meeting and to be informed about issues.
In 2015 and 2016, the document was approved by all board members present at each meeting — all seven signed on in 2015 and in 2016, Taylor was absent from the meeting and former board member Joe Fuentes had already resigned.
For the past two years, the document generated little to no discussion, according to a review of videos of past board meetings.
This year was different.
Ownby sparked a discussion around the ninth item in the code, which states board members won't use their position for personal or partisan gains. Ownby is the newest board member, elected in November 2016.
"It seems to me when folks run for school board they should not align themselves with a political party," Ownby said. "This very clearly states … that we should conduct ourselves independent of any political party."
When running for school board, candidates must register as independents and cannot be nominated by a political party though they are allowed to be endorsed by one. Ownby said Friday she takes issue with endorsements as well, calling it a "slippery slope."
Ownby said Friday she brought the issue up because of her own experience campaigning last fall, and said once she read this document, it was clear to her that number nine may not have been followed. She wouldn't give specific examples Friday.
Ownby said she wanted to highlight this part of the code publicly in an effort at transparency, to remind people that the board is a non-partisan entity and cannot be influenced by political parties.
Kelly added that the code also states board members are to avoid conflicts of interest and the appearance of impropriety.
"It's not just staying out of the partisan gain on the school board but also the appearance of that," Kelly said. "I think that's an important distinction."
The board members are expected to vote on the document at their Jan. 17 meeting.
School Board Appointments:
Chair: Kyra Cook (Williamsburg)
Vice Chair: Holly Taylor (JCC Stonehouse)
Parliamentarian: Julie Hummel (Williamsburg)
Trustee on New Horizons Board: Jim Kelly (JCC Jamestown)
Appointee to WHRO Board: Jim Beers (JCC Roberts)
Special Education Advisory Committee: Lisa Ownby (Powhatan)
Student Advisory Committee: Taylor and Ownby
Policy Committee: Hummel and Taylor
School Liaison Committee: Kelly and Hummel
Superintendent Agenda Review Committee is always chair and vice chair: Cook and Taylor
Superintendent's Business and Community Advisory Committee is always the chair: Cook