A majority of the often unruly crowd packed into the Loudon County Courthouse Annex meeting room Thursday evening for a Loudon County Board of Education meeting arrived with their minds made up.
Angry words flew from the audience, upset over claims Loudon County Director of Schools Jason Vance abused the power of his office and tried to pressure Loudon High School boys basketball coach Josh Graves into dressing Vance’s son for varsity play. Vance, in a statement released to social media Thursday night, characterized any rumors that he told Graves which players to dress or “bullied the coach” as “completely inaccurate and unfounded.”
In an email sent to LHS Principal Cherri Parrish and copied to others in December, Vance did question the removal of his son from the varsity roster. He asks in the email that Graves apologize for “inconsistent decision making” and allow for a few players who were originally scheduled to dress for varsity — including his son — to dress as planned.
The reality is that even if Vance did not directly demand his son dress for varsity, the director’s position of power in the school system changes the dynamic of parent and coach interaction. Yes, Vance is still a parent who wants to, and should, place priority on the well-being of his child. But Vance must consider when he approaches a coach with a complaint his position of authority over that person — having the ability to essentially start the process of removing them from the position — creates pressure that would not otherwise be present from another parent.
Vance’s email also notes he had already discussed his complaints with LHS Athletic Director Ronnie Roberts. After apparently failing to get the response he hoped from Roberts, Vance continued to work his way up the chain of command at the high school looking for someone to take his side. And while we believe Vance when he says he never directly threatened Graves’ job, bringing his complaint to school administration shows that he doesn’t fully grasp the boundary he crossed. By virtue of his position, Vance must tread lightly in these types of situations to avoid even the appearance of abusing his power. The community must trust that Vance will not use his authority to garner unfair influence, and right now that trust is damaged with some.
Certainly there are members of the community who are frustrated by these events, but what is utterly unacceptable is the way some have handled that frustration. Targeting Vance and his family with threats is abhorrent. Demanding a knee jerk reaction from members of the BOE is also not the right approach. And then there is the problem of the leaked email Vance sent to Parrish and others, which should have remained private information. The fact that the email made its way into the public and was circulated on social media is an issue that must be addressed. Thankfully, the BOE decided Thursday a full investigation is needed.
But let us be clear: Now that matters are in the open, that is where they should be solved.
BOE members suggested they would take the Vance situation into a private meeting to make a decision on whether there was wrongdoing by Vance or others. Such a meeting must be held in the open.
This is the same BOE scheduled to go to court later this month over whether a closed door meeting in 2017 violated the state’s open meetings act. State law requires governing bodies make meetings public in which “a quorum is required in order to make a decision or to deliberate toward a decision on any matter.” The BOE went behind closed doors in 2017 to deal with what they saw as an annoyance when one resident routinely challenged board policies relating to open records. Now the BOE wants to go behind closed doors regarding Vance and the fallout because they are embarrassed and don’t want to risk what they see as airing dirty laundry in public.
If the BOE and Vance want to regain trust in the community, the only way to truly accomplish that is by being open and transparent when discussing and deciding what comes next.