Throughout Wednesday's ethics hearing, Cherokee County School Board member Kelly Marlow held firm in her opinion that sending a letter to AdvancED requesting they conduct an investigation into the school district was not a violation of board policy.
Marlow stuck to her guns during her testimony in which she was peppered with questions by School Board Attorney Tom Roach about her purpose behind her decision to send the letter. The board on Wednesday did in fact say she violated its policies and was sanctioned accordingly.
During the testimony, Roach pointed out Marlow also sent a copy of the letter to the Cherokee County legislative delegation and Cherokee County commissioners. Copying those legislators and local leaders onto the letter, Roach added, was done my Marlow to "create an effect."
Marlow denied that allegation, and reiterated she merely sent them copies because she wanted to "inform them that I was sending them the letter.
The District 1 board member, who was sworn into office in January, was also asked if she understood what it meant when a district was placed on probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which is overseen by AdvancED.
Roach alluded to comments Marlow made at a town hall meeting in June which she stated that SACS placing the Cherokee County School Board on probation would not spill over and impact the school district.
"That is not my full understanding," she said, when asked by Roach if she understood that a school board being placed on probation would indeed impact the district and its students.
Roach contradicted Marlow's comments, and referred to a conversation he had with her about Cherokee's "Dark Ages" in which the actions of one board member resulted in the entire district being placed on probation in the late 1990s.
"So, how do you think this would be different?" Roach asked.
"I don’t believe that we are in the Dark Ages and we have a different board at this point," Marlow stated.
Roach also noted Marlow had plenty of opportunities to discuss her issues with board members, and even introduce those subjects as agenda items for board meetings. However, Marlow decided against those actions because she was aware she would not get a majority vote in support of her cause, the attorney said.
"I believe that is an unfair characterization and that's not correct," Marlow responded.
Roach then called Superintendent of Schools Dr. Frank Petruzielo to the stand, and asked him how much time it took for his staff to respond to Marlow's complaint. He also asked the superintendent how he thought the attention from SACS has impacted the district.
"In my opinion, this has a damaged the otherwise outstanding reputation of the school board, of the superintendent, of the staff and of the school district," he added.
During cross examination, J. Thomas Salata, Marlow's attorney and brother, asked Petruzielo if he'd already had his mind made up about his client's complaints. He also asked the superintendent if the amount of time staff spent on crafting responses to the complaint took any time away from students.
He also asked Petruzielo if he had any concerns about the merits of Marlow's allegations, to which Petruzielo said "it's going to cause concern" anytime a board member sends a letter to AdvancED calling for an investigation.
"What I was sure of was that those allegations were false," he added.
"Therefore, you didn't really have any real concern about the jeopardization of the the accreditation of the Cherokee County school system, did you?" Salata asked.
Petruzielo said he'd always have concerns about the district's accreditation when a letter similar to Marlow's is sent to the accrediting body.
For his defense, Salata called board members Janet Read and Rob Usher to testify.
Salata asked Usher if he felt Marlow was in her right to send the letter to AdvancED, to which he responded with "No."
Salata attempted to introduce as evidence a letter written by former school board member Mike Chapman discussing the 2012 reapportionment process in Cherokee County.
Roach objected to that reference, noting the issue was not about sending letters in general, but whether Marlow sending her letter was a violation of board policy.
Hearing officer Hugh M. Dorsey III sustained Roach's objection. When Salata called Read to the stand, he gave her a copy of a letter she sent to State Rep. Fran Millar and began to ask questions about the subject in the letter.
However, Roach again objected to that introduction of evidence under the same reasoning he objected to the Chapman letter, and Dorsey sustained the motion.
In closing, Roach said Marlow had every opportunity to bring forth her issues with the board, but she chose not to.
"You have to gleam the intent from the circumstance," he added. "And I think clearly from the circumstance Ms. Marlow sent the letter with the intent of bending the will of the board bending the will of the majority of the board to her position."
Salata told the board he felt the case was a free speech matter. He also said that if board members voted to condemn Marlow with a yes vote on both counts, they would open themselves up with the possibly of facing the same fate as his client if they send letters to elected officials.
While Salata freely admitted he was in way over his head with experience arguing school board ethics cases, he noted he had no doubt about what was right and what was wrong.
"When I'm right, I'm right," he said. "This is a scary school board violation (sic). It does not take a seasoned school district veteran like Mr. Roach to see this is a problem. If you open your mouth, you're going to be (called) unethical. That is a problem."