SALT LAKE CITY — Despite several members of the State School Board expressing concern over a potential conflict of interest, the appointment of Joel Coleman as interim state superintendent was confirmed Thursday by a 9-6 vote.
Coleman, a former State School Board member who serves as superintendent of the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind, was named interim state superintendent of public instruction last week.
But since Coleman's appointment, individual board members have objected to the decision being made without a public vote and have questioned whether a pending lawsuit filed by Coleman's wife against the State Charter School Board impedes his ability to serve in the top position at the Utah State Office of Education.
"I think for us to put in as an interim superintendent a person with such a difficult conflict will discourage people in the State Office (of Education)," board member Kim Burningham said. "It will hurt morale further, which is already a challenge in my estimation, and I would think it’s something that Superintendent Coleman would see as something he should not do."
The meeting came days after board member Terryl Warner sent a letter to her colleagues accusing the board's leadership of violating policy by appointing Coleman without the board's consent and calling for an investigation into potential violations of the state's open meetings laws.
The letter also referenced allegations made during a closed meeting that certain board members had misused their authority.
Warner said she received an outpouring of community support after sending her letter, with parents and educators thanking her for raising her concerns.
"I didn’t know that I would get the kind of attention it has gotten, but I have received emails from people not only in my own district but from all over the state," she said.
Rumors of discord have surrounded the State School Board since the sudden departures of State Superintendent Martell Menlove and Deputy Superintendent Brenda Hales, who held the top two positions at the Utah State Office of Education.
Menlove had previously announced his intention to retire when a replacement could be found, but he recently informed the school board that he would be stepping down prior to the hiring of a new state superintendent.
Hales announced her resignation earlier this month.
Warner said that she could not elaborate on the specific rumors and allegations that have been discussed by the board due to those conversations taking place during closed meetings.
But she said the board would benefit from training on when the use of closed meetings is allowed under state law and an investigation into other areas of board conduct.
"I’m not going to back down off that, because there were allegations made that I believe shouldn’t be made," Warner said.
Board Chairman Dave Crandall said Thursday's meeting was "at least in part" a result of Warner's letter.
"There were other board members who also suggested that we meet prior to our next scheduled board meeting to ratify the appointment of Superintendent Coleman, or to go a different route if that’s what the board wants to do," Crandall said.
He said the state's deputy superintendent would typically serve as acting state superintendent during the search for a replacement, but Hale's resignation created a unique scenario for board leadership to respond to.
Crandall said he intended to ask the board to ratify Coleman's appointment at their next regularly scheduled meeting, but a special meeting was called to address the concerns of board members.
When asked about the rumors of a negative working environment at the Utah State Office of Education, he said that a certain amount of anxiety naturally accompanies a period of transition.
"This is a unique situation where we have both the superintendent and the deputy retiring at about the same time, and I think just adds to the anxiety and really underscores the need to get an interim in place as soon as possible and to make sure that he or she has the support of the board," Crandall said.
He also said that Warner's concerns about open meetings violations had been referred to the Utah Attorney General's Office and that the board regularly receives training on open meetings in December.
"Unless they actually find some violation, I wouldn’t anticipate that we’d have any training before then," he said.
At several points during Thursday's meeting board members objected to discussion of Coleman's qualifications and character, suggesting that such subjects should be left to a closed meeting.
The meeting was also stopped several times as board members objected to insinuations that referenced previous closed meetings of the board.
"There are all these innuendos out there and the innuendos about what happened in executive session," board member Leslie Castle said. "I resent and I object to those innuendos going around that no one can defend."
Coleman did not attend Thursday's meeting but said prior to the vote that he does not consider himself to be a party to his wife's lawsuit, and does not believe that he would supervise any parties to the lawsuit as interim state superintendent.
He also said that he had no intention of applying for a permanent position as state superintendent and would return to his role at the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind once a permanent replacement for Menlove is named by the board.
"I was happy to help out if (the board) wanted me to," he said.
Warner said her request for a special meeting was not out of an objection to Coleman's appointment but instead a desire that the full board be involved in the decision of naming an interim superintendent and to resolve lingering concerns.
"I’m just trying to do the right thing," she said. "I think that education is at a critical crossroads right now, that statewide, nationwide, there are a lot of people concerned with education, and I think therefore we need to step up our transparency even more."