Supervisors chairman delivers response to school board, superintendent on info breach

The recent discovery of confidential student, parent and teacher information in old Pulaski Middle School has prompted back-and-forth statements between school and county officials.

Monday night, Board of Supervisors Chairman Joe Guthrie took his turn speaking out on the matter.

“I will make a brief statement in response to a statement made by Dr. Kevin Siers, Superintendent of Pulaski County Public Schools, at the School Board’s November 9th meeting,” Guthrie began.

“Siers referenced the large volume of documents the school administration left at the former Pulaski Middle School when it was deeded over to the county. The county has since then signed ownership to the Pulaski County Economic Development Authority and the site is being repurposed as residential housing.

“Obviously, any documents – particularly documents with sensitive health and personally identifying information – should have been removed from the building before its use was discontinued by the school system,” Guthrie continued.

“I have no doubt that leaving the documents there was an unintentional oversight. How that oversight occurred and who was responsible are important questions that the superintendent and school board should be asking. They need to not only identify the cause of this incident, but more importantly, they need to assure the people of the county that changes will be implemented in procedures to ensure that mistakes like that one do not occur again,” he said.

But, Guthrie continued, “Instead of apologizing for this oversight on behalf of himself and his staff and taking fault for what ultimately lies with school system leadership, Dr. Siers instead stated that the fault lies with me personally. He cited a statement I made at a school board meeting in which I said that the building did not need to be cleared out prior to deeding the property over to the county and could be deeded over as it was so the developer could begin the process of converting it to its new use.

“Siers and the members of the school board are well aware that when a school property is deemed to no longer have any purpose for educational use, it is turned over to the Board of Supervisors, which had paid for it. They know that we accept the property with the presumption that any items of value – especially student and personnel documents and records – have been removed from the building.

“In fact,” Guthrie continued, “the presence of such records would mean the building was still being used for the purpose of housing those records and therefore it could not be turned over to the county.

“They are aware that when I made that statement at a school board meeting it was long after the school had been closed, it was after auctions of surplus property had been conducted, and it was after I had been assured by school administration that there were no remaining items of value left in the school. We had been assured that the only remaining items were those to be disposed of.”

“Furthermore,” Guthrie said, “my statement that the building did not have to be cleaned out prior to the deed being transferred did not by any means prevent school employees from returning to clean the building out. Quite to the contrary, the county and EDA expected the school administration to oversee the continued removal of the items left there. What we said and what we very clearly meant was that the transfer of the deed could proceed before the remaining items were disposed of, and then the removal of those items could continue. The deed transfer was necessary so as to not delay the county and the developer from applying for competitive grants for the project.

“When Dr. Siers was informed by County Administrator Jonathan Sweet that there were documents scattered about the building, he sent workers there to collect them on at least two occasions over the course of several days. That clearly shows that school employees could have entered the site at any time to remove items even after the property had been deeded over and that Siers felt free to order his employees to do so,” Guthrie added.

“I say this to clarify this matter for the public record. Before the school administration can prevent a mistake like this from recurring, they must correctly identify what caused this mistake to be made. Deflecting and misdirecting responsibility is not helpful in the process of understanding the cause of the problem and preventing it from occurring again,” he said.

Guthrie made his comments following a Citizens Comment period in which county citizens can address a variety of issues before the board of supervisors.

Former supervisor Andy McCready was first up.

“Seems like our friends down the street at the school board are back to their old ways of blaming the Board of Supervisors for pretty much everything,” McCready charged. “I see they have tried to label the most recent data breach as a Pulaski County problem.

“It is a problem generated and completely owned by the school board and their employees. It is not a function of the board of supervisors to do that. They seem to want to try and blame someone in particular for releasing information on the breach. That information was released when someone failed to clean the building and said to whoever up the chain of command, ‘the building has all its records removed.’

“Anything other than that is just a smokescreen,” McCready said.

He noted the email sent by County Administrator Jonathan Sweet to Siers is public record.

“I think part of the problem is the school board wanted to divert attention from the fundamental problem that now even their most ardent supporters are catching onto, and that is the performance of the school system and how well they’re educating kids and how well they are not doing that job.

“I think that speaks for itself when some of their own people begin to say that,” McCready said.

Billy Williams told the supervisors parents need more control over “what is being taught, how it is being taught and who is teaching it.”

“This past year has seen a huge awakening. Parents do not want their children subjected to policies that go against their fundamental beliefs,” he said.

Williams noted in this community, “parents have little choice than to send our children to public schools. There are no charter schools close by and the cost of private and Christian schools are fully funded by tuition paid by parents.”

However, he said, with the election of Glenn Youngkin, “we now have an advocate for parents in the governor’s office.”

Williams said Youngkin favors a plan by which education dollars will follow students, not school divisions. So, if parents choose to move their students to private or Christian schools – or the charter schools Youngkin plans to open during his administration – that state school funding will follow them.

“I’m asking this board to follow suit, with a dollar figure attached to each child based on the county’s portion of funding. This dollar amount can be available to any and all parents to use for school choice. If they choose private, Christian or even if they want to stay in public schools this funding follows the child,” Williams urged.

E.W. Harless said he had talked to some teachers who called Siers a “dictator.” He continued that he believes the school board protects him, and that he doesn’t “see this getting any better.”

Jean Anderson asked a series of questions of the supervisors. One of those was why the school board and board of supervisors don’t get along?

“You both need to be on the same page instead of working against each other,” Anderson admonished.