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Spotsylvania County Public Schools

Spotsylvania School Board votes unanimously to reprimand Phelps

by | Apr 9, 2024 | ALLFFP, Schools & Education, Spotsylvania

The Spotsylvania County School Board voted to reprimand Lee Hill District representative Lisa Phelps Monday night on allegations of numerous ethics violations.  

The board voted 5-0 with Phelps and Berkeley District board member April Gillespie absent. Phelps began the meeting virtually but departed early. Gillespie did not attend.  

Monday marks the 11th out of 12 meetings since January that Phelps and Gillespie either were absent, departed early or arrived late. Phelps noted that she attended every regular meeting that was on the original schedule set in January and that her absences were for special meetings. 

The final vote on Monday was in favor of a written reprimand, which will be drafted by Vice Chair Nicole Cole and approved by Chair Lorita Daniels. It will list the sections of the board’s Code of Ethics that Phelps allegedly violated. 

Cole’s initial motion also included a one-minute deduction of board comments from Phelps at the May meeting, but Chancellor District representative Belen Rodas made a substitute motion to only include the reprimand. Rodas said she did not want to punish Phelps’ constituents, and her substitute motion was approved.  

Cole said Phelps represented her district in a way that is “unbecoming of a board member.” She said the violations occurred in late 2023 and January of this year.  

“We should never be acting, behaving or saying things that have been said and done to the detriment of the culture of our school division,” Cole said. “So, I will just say that there needs to be a deterrent … I just hope Ms. Phelps takes this and says, ‘I will be better.’ That’s the intent. But it has to be recognized that this is not the way. The way these policies have been violated and the code of ethics has been violated is not the way we need to comport ourselves as school board members.”  

Cole said she made the motion “in the spirit of policing ourselves as a board and attempting to address where trust has been compromised by a member of this board on multiple occasions.”  

She cited that Phelps violated the following rules in the code: “I will have integrity in all matters and support the full development of all children and welfare of the community; Commonwealth and nation; I will communicate in accordance with board policies, public reaction, opinions regarding board policy and school programs; I will refrain from using the board position for personal or partisan gain and avoid any conflicts of interest or the appearance of impropriety; I will respect the confidentiality of privileged information and make no individual decisions or commitments that might compromise the board or administration; and I will always abstain from physical, sexual or verbal harassment of school employees, agents, volunteers, contractors and other persons subject to the supervision and control of the school division.” 

In an interview, Cole said that in the fall during campaign season, Phelps showed up multiple times to endorse candidates at early voting wearing a shirt with the Spotsylvania County Public Schools logo and was dismissive when Cole reminded her it was a violation.   

In December, Cole said Phelps divulged information that was shared in closed session to individuals who were not privy to it. She also accused Phelps of sharing sensitive information regarding a controversy with the Riverbend High School swim team with operators of a Facebook page known to disparage other board members who do not agree with them politically.  

Cole said Phelps used racial and sexual slurs toward others on multiple occasions, including at the end of a January meeting when she called former Chancellor District representative Dawn Shelley “Jezebel” — a term defined as an immoral woman who deceives to get what they want. In modern vocabulary, “Jezebel” is sometimes used as a synonym for a sexually promiscuous woman. Cole said Phelps encouraged supporters to also use the term toward Shelley.  

Phelps said in an interview that she was not on school property during the early voting, and she was not acting in her official school capacity. She called the allegation of leaking documents to the operators of the Facebook page “unfounded.” She admitted that she “absolutely” referred to Shelley as “Jezebel” but added that the school board attorney investigated the matter and did not find that the comment rose to the level of sexual harassment. 

Phelps said that school board members should have been wary of voting to reprimand her before seeing what the actual document will look like. 

“I believe this is based on board members’ opinions and feelings,” Phelps said. “In my opinion, this is just another disgraceful act of retribution by the current majority board members and will undoubtedly continue. I will be resilient.” 

Cole noted that the board wanted to act on Phelps’ alleged violations in January but had to first update its policy on the ways it could sanction members. The new policy, which reinforces the ability of the board to remove sanctioned members from committees for the balance of the year, limit their board comments to two minutes, issue a written public reprimand or a combination of the three after serious or repeated violations of the board’s Code of Ethics, was approved in February.  

All five board members present Monday night said the reprimand was needed.  

Daniels said school officials often send letters home to children when they misbehave and that school board members should be held accountable, as well.  

“If we’re setting that standard for our students, we should also set the same standard for ourselves,” Daniels said. “Just keep in mind, we are all elected officials and we do have a policy that was adopted that we should follow. We should not just have a policy in name, we should take action when it’s appropriate to use that policy.”  

Livingston District representative Megan Jackson reminded board members that they all will be held to the same standard, saying, “If we can dish it out, we better be able to take it.”  

“I do think there is probably quite a list of things that have been done that deserve disciplinary action,” said Jackson of Phelps. “I think a written reprimand is a good start.”  

Courtland District board member Carol Medawar said Phelps’ behavior is a sensitive topic, but she agrees with Cole’s motion because it is not punitive, in her opinion, but rather a means to address the past and move forward. She said she hopes an upcoming board retreat will help the group heal old wounds.  

“I think excellence is intentional,” Medawar said. “So, we have to be intentional about striving towards excellence and calling it out when we have areas we need to improve.” 

 

 

 

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