‘You cannot lie.’ Tensions erupted as school board debated $579.9 million budget.

Sharp exchanges shared at FCPS school board meeting

A sharp exchange is made between Fayette County Public Schools board member Tyler Murphy and school board chairman Stephanie Spires during an FCPS School Board meeting on May 20, 2019.
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A sharp exchange is made between Fayette County Public Schools board member Tyler Murphy and school board chairman Stephanie Spires during an FCPS School Board meeting on May 20, 2019.

When new Fayette County Public Schools board member Tyler Murphy cast the lone vote against the district’s $579.9 million tentative budget earlier this month saying his questions had not been answered, chairwoman Stephanie Spires responded, “You can not lie.”

The public exchange at the school board meeting in which Spires questioned Murphy’s truthfulness highlighted tensions that have surfaced on the school board since Murphy, a Boyle County teacher who won the second district board seat in November, assumed the post in January and began asking questions. The second district for the school board includes downtown and parts of north Lexington.

At the May 20 regular school board meeting, Murphy said, “My concern is about the trust that we have with the public and that needs to be our first priority.”

He questioned whether there was “mutual trust” between he and the administration and said that he wanted to move forward as a team. Murphy said he didn’t want his vote to be translated as an adversarial move, but that he would keep asking questions.

“I think that trust is absolutely something that is important to this board,” Spires responded. “I’m excited to hear that you want to move forward in a trusting manner. As you know we have had some issues in recent months with trust and so I’m excited to hear this.”

“I know that teachers have reached out to me and have articulated that you have said that I would not meet with you and I have tried to follow up with you.”

Spires said that Murphy only pretended to sign the school board’s standards of practice document “and then walked out of the room.”

The document includes several commitments expected of board members such as respecting the leadership roles of the board chair and the superintendent.

Spires raised the question of whether Murphy had visited five low-performing schools in the district that he represents. And Spires said, “I know that you went to social media and misrepresented what the board says.”

“So we can move forward in a trusting manner, but that is on you as well. You have to be truthful and you have to be a team player. You can not lie to your constituents and you can not lie to us in this group,” Spires said.

Murphy said he did not want to “dignify” the charges with a response because “that distracts us from what our goals should be as members of the board.”

“I personally will not engage in personal attacks,” he said.

After the board meeting, Murphy issued a statement, saying that the 2019-2020 tentative budget “assumes a 4 percent tax increase on our citizens. I have asked questions and requested information to ensure we’re maximizing money for our kids. In the absence of answers or clarity, I voted no on the tentative budget and tax increase.” (Murphy was referring to the fact that the school board will be asked to approve tax rates on real and personal property that generate a 4 percent increase in revenue as has happened in the past several years.)

Spires told the Herald-Leader that Murphy “was able to ask questions during the special-called budget meeting and did so.”

Murphy said that he is concerned about a “flawed broken process in the way that the school board operates in relation to the administration. “ He said in asking questions, he wanted to ensure a fair, independent audit; to make sure contracts and bids are available for timely review by the board; that questions and requests for information are answered; and that transparency guidelines were followed when committees make recommendations to the board.

Murphy recently pushed for the district’s external auditing firm to be rotated every five years.

Spires said Wednesday that “in response to Mr. Murphy’s questions regarding the audit, as (Fayette school board) chairman, I employed outside legal counsel (Chenoweth Law Office) to review his concerns and it was determined that the board did not violate any policies and procedures.”

The 2019-2020 tentative budget fully funds the turnaround plans approved by the school board for seven low-performing Fayette County elementary schools that have been targeted by the Kentucky Department of Education for Comprehensive Support and Improvement, a statement from the district said. Investments will include hiring instructional specialists who work with faculty and staff in each school, paying for an outside consultant to improve achievement and for additional staff.

Five schools will offer Acceleration Learning Labs featuring after-school programs to improve student achievement. Two schools -- Harrison and William Wells Brown elementary schools -- will have longer school days and a longer school year in a model called “promise academies.” Staff at those schools will be paid more than schools with shorter instructional days.

Changes to state pension requirements will increase the district’s employer match in the classified retirement system by an additional $1.5 million, the statement said, and rising utility fees are expected to cost an additional $1.3 million. The budget also includes $2.9 million to pay for raises for employees eligible for step increases based on education and years of service.

“These investments maintain Fayette County’s market competitiveness when compared with surrounding counties and municipalities,” Caulk said.

The district is also hiring more teachers to serve students with special needs, students whose home language is not English and students who have been identified as gifted and talented. It is purchasing a comprehensive science curriculum for elementary and middle schools and will be adding the costs of the district’s 37th elementary school -- Brenda Cowan Elementary School on Athens-Boonesboro Road -- which is scheduled to open in the fall of 2019.

School district spokeswoman Lisa Deffendall said the more than $13 million from the school safety tax increase that the board approved last summer is included in the general fund total budget as part of the revenue and as part of the expenses.

On June 30, she said district officials will know exactly what they have spent out of this year’s school safety money and how much they have left for one-time costs. Then they will determine how they are going to spend next year’s school safety money. The district has a 10-point safety plan which includes everything from walk-through metal detectors at high schools to increased police staff. Some of the ten measures have occurred at this point and others are pending.

“Developing a school district budget goes beyond juggling numbers to balance revenue and expenses,” Superintendent Manny Caulk said. “The budget is a reflection of our community’s hopes, dreams, and values about the future, about our children and the possibility of a better tomorrow. Our budget for 2019-2020 invests in our children and our employees.”