David Kirk Dominates School Board Discussion, Even in Absentia | Off Message

David Kirk Dominates School Board Discussion, Even in Absentia


School board member David Kirk - FILE: ALICIA FREESE
  • File: Alicia Freese
  • School board member David Kirk
Embattled Burlington school board member David Kirk didn't show, but his name came up at a board subcommittee meeting Tuesday night.

The big question? Whether the board should say more to the public about its ongoing review of Kirk's conduct for possible censure.

Kirk angered some parents, teachers and students with Facebook posts that they said were racially insensitive and belittling.

Controversy over the posts erupted two weeks ago. Kirk has since apologized, admitting that the posts were "inexcusable." The school board, along with superintendent Yaw Obeng, joined the chorus of critics. The board asked school board attorney Joe McNeil to investigate any possible violations of board policy.

The review is not complete. But Ward 5 board member Susanmarie Harrington suggested that, in the meantime, it might be worth letting parents know that the board remains concerned about the matter.

The board's planning subcommittee met Tuesday, and the full board is scheduled to meet November 10.

Not saying anything about the controversy "may suggest we're not paying attention," Harrington said, noting that she's received several emails about Kirk.

Opening up debate at a full board meeting did not appeal to board chair Mark Porter. "You don't want to go there," Porter replied to Harrington's suggestion.

Right now it's better to talk about Kirk in executive session, Porter said, without the public present. He added that he'd check with McNeil, the board's attorney, for advice.

Only one parent attended the meeting, and she suggested the board reassess its strategy and get out in front of such a difficult situation. The board currently has a "PR problem," said Karen Ruben,* cochair of the C.P. Smith Elementary School PTO and a mother of three.

"The thing about David Kirk is coming at you anyway," she said. Ruben urged the board to address the matter head on and take "the wind out" of the controversy.

Ruben said the Kirk situation is complicated and declined to say whether she thinks he should resign. "I don't have an opinion on that," she said.

Kirk, who represents Ward 7 in the city's New North End, did not respond to an email seeking comment. He's a member of the planning subcommittee but did not attend Tuesday's meeting.

The board can discuss public relations but its legal options with Kirk are likely limited. The Facebook posts did not appear to reference school business directly. The review is to determine if Kirk violated any school board policies.

Even if he did violate policy, it's unlikely the board could remove Kirk. And even school board censure can be tricky and expensive from a legal standpoint — in the 1990s, a case in Essex Junction triggered a legal battle that went all the way to the Vermont Supreme Court.

There's nothing in Vermont statute or Burlington ordinance to allow a recall vote of an elected school board member, according to McNeil and Nicole Mace, the executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association who responded to a question from Seven Days prior to Tuesday's meeting. Nor is there any provision under which a board majority could eject another duly elected member of the board.

Voters who are upset with the performance of school board members can vote them out when their term comes up, or ask them to resign, Mace said in an interview with Seven Days.

Kirk's term ends in 2018.

"The answer is that they are elected officials and ultimately they are accountable to the electorate," Mace said, "and the electorate needs to, number one, exercise their vote and two, if they feel strongly about the conduct of an elected official, they can always bring pressure on that individual to resign."

*Correction, November 2, 2016: A previous version of this story misspelled Karen Ruben's name.