Over the past few weeks, the FOX 13 Investigates team has reviewed hundreds of emails and text messages sent between members of the Salt Lake City School District, revealing a dysfunctional system that distracts from the work being done to help students.
Some of the messages are disrespectful to their constituents.
Some of the messages insult SLCSD employees.
Some of the messages depict board members using vulgar language.
Raina Williams, a mother of five children attending schools within the district, filed a public records request asking for copies of all electronic communication between board members. She shared the results with FOX 13.
“What’s going on behind the scenes that we’re not being told?” Williams asked. “It was just alarming.”
Profane text messages spark debate on professionalism
Even before Williams read the emails and text messages sent between board members, she was one of many parents to complain about a lack of professionalism at board meetings.
One woman, who identified herself as a taxpayer, a retired SLCSD teacher, and a grandmother of SLCSD students, sent an email to all members of the board to let them know how disappointed she was with the previous board meeting.
“It was embarrassing to watch this debacle of a meeting… I was appalled by the unprofessional behavior,” the woman wrote. “What you do need to do is be PROFESSIONAL… Don’t stand behind being elected as your right to say whatever you want with blatant disregard to those you are attacking.”
The woman was referencing an online meeting on July 21. The meeting ended abruptly once board member Katherine Kennedy publicly expressed her frustration that it did not end at 6 p.m.
Instead of excusing herself from the meeting, Kennedy demanded that the meeting be adjourned so that she could spend time with her daughter.
“I’d like to end this meeting now!” Kennedy said. “I’ve seen the chat (on Facebook Live). I’ve seen myself get roasted in the chat. This is an important topic. This is very important to me, but we decided and I agreed to this meeting because we said it would be over. I’ve already missed 10 minutes of something that was very important to my daughter.”
As a result, the board did not decide on a back-to-school plan despite the first day of school approaching quickly.
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A review of board president Melissa Ford’s texting history reveals a series of profane messages that Kennedy sent during the meeting.
The following messages, sent by Kennedy on July 21, have been censored by FOX 13.
- You promised me
- You f***ing promised me
- I f***ing HATE YOU
- F*** YOU
- I will never trust you again
- You are not trustworthy.
“Yup, it’s as bad as I thought it was,” Williams said. “She couldn’t just leave and excuse herself? She had to throw a fit… It was completely unprofessional and so alarming.”
Ford, who became visibly emotional during the meeting, confirmed the validity of the vulgar messages to FOX 13 but otherwise declined to make a statement. She did not appear to respond to Kennedy via text message.
Kennedy ignored multiple FOX 13 requests for comment.
According to the SLCSD code of conduct, board members are expected to “refrain from any conduct which would violate the Board’s policies regarding discrimination, harassment, retaliation, bullying, cyber-bullying, and/or abusive conduct.”
Board member Michael Nemelka expressed shock and disappointment in an interview with FOX 13 once he learned of Kennedy’s behavior.
“You’ve got to be kidding me!” Nemelka said. “That’s a mother? I’ve never heard a mother I ever know use those kind of words before… If that’s the language she uses to express herself, then evidently she can go back to school and get some more English words that she can use without using filth!”
During that same meeting, Nemelka was caught on camera playing solitaire.
“Playing solitaire during the meeting was beyond disrespectful not just to the board but to all of your constituents,” wrote one emailer.
“I did play it a couple times. I’m not gonna lie,” Nemelka said. “Playing solitaire is no different than those guys in there texting while they’re listening to what’s going on!”
A further review of each board member’s texting history indicates Kennedy was not the only board member to send disparaging messages about SLCSD employees.
Records show vice president Nate Salazar and board member Samuel Hanson exchanged at least 200 messages, often complaining about parents or principals who disagreed with their opinion to keep students online instead of returning to the classroom.
“So, how many ‘the silent majority doesn’t support you’ emails do we have to get to know we’ve made it?” Salazar asked in a text message on July 15.
“I don’t know but I think we’re getting there,” Hanson responded. “For a ‘silent’ group they’re pretty whiny.”
“Hahaha!” Salazar wrote. “I thought that exact same thing.”
“I can’t believe that (West High Principal) Jared Wright basically held an open schools up (for football) rally last night,” Hanson wrote on July 21. “I heard Jared was saying things like ‘I hope no one has a tape recorder,’ and ‘it’s not worse than the flu.”
“Ef Jared,” Salazar eventually responded. “What a tool.”
Principal Wright sent the following written statement to FOX 13 after reading the text message conversations between Salazar and Hanson.
“Their behavior was disappointing, though not surprising,” Wright wrote. “The SL board of education has never faced a more important decision than they did this summer and it was disappointing to learn that some board members were more focused on the political game than they were on making the best decisions for students, teachers and our communities.”
“Jared Wright was the principal of two of my sons,” Williams said. “He has an excellent reputation… They were more concerned about him ‘being on the district’s team’ and him making their life easier rather than him speaking up for the families of West High.”
According to the SLCSD code of conduct, board members are expected to “approach each issue with an open mind and evident respect for diverse opinions.”
According to the SLCSD policy that discusses the disciplining of board members, “if disruptive or destructive behavior occurs, the Board may issue a formal reprimand by a vote of five members.”
Some messages reveal an effort to swing the vote
Williams said the messages between Salazar and Hanson prove her suspicion that board members were secretly meeting to influence the district’s back-to-school plan for the 2020-2021 school year.
Nemelka expressed the same concerns, often feeling outnumbered as he casted his votes.
“It’s more political than you would believe,” Nemelka told FOX 13. “A lot of the things that happen I don’t know about, because they’ve already a decision before we even get to the board meeting... They don’t have the courage to come out at board meetings. These things are all worked out before.”
Although some members of the district initially stated they were leaning towards a “hybrid” plan, SLCSD eventually became the only district in Utah to not allow students back in the classroom at the onset of the school year.
“Going to recommend the Labor day start with remote learning. Maube (sic) that can swing (board member Michelle Tuitupou),” Salazar wrote in a text message to Hanson on July 20. “Dod (sic) you talk to her yet?”
“I texted her and haven’t gotten a reply yet,” Hanson responded. “I think Labor Day is a good idea.”
“Sam, I can’t believe we have to organize this hard for this…” Salazar later wrote that same day.
“It’s disappointing,” Hanson responded.
A review of Hanson’s text messages also revealed the following conversation with Tuitupou on July 16.
“How are you holding up?” Tuitupou wrote. “I’m about ready to fight people. Lol! Have I sarcastically thanked you lately for making me apply for this position? I hope you know I’m totally messing with you. I still wanna fight people, though. I saw that Raina (Williams) person’s email to you. Ooohhh wee!”
“Yeah. I’m sorry. I wish I could say I didn’t know what I was getting you into but that wouldn’t be entirely true,” Hanson responded. “Some of these people are living on a different planet.”
Williams said she took offense to the messages.
“The planet I’m living on is actually trying to educate children,” Williams said. “I thought it was pretty unprofessional and hinges on unethical… It was about having the four board members do what they had to do to get those votes."
"Teaching online is a lazy way to teach," Nemelka said. "You need to be able to express your opinion and not be shot down for it... I tried to get along with them all but they just don’t think the same way I think."
Salazar and Hanson ignored multiple FOX 13 requests for comment.
Tuitupou told FOX 13 she did not remember the email from Williams.
“There really is a lot of divisiveness among the community, and we’re really just trying to do our best to make sure that our number one priority are the kids,” Tuitupou said.
According to SLCSD policy, “When communicating in his/her role as a Board member with District staff, the Board member should ensure that the Superintendent has knowledge of all such communications. All written communication between Board members and staff should be copied to the Superintendent.”
Although some board members exchanged (professional) emails and text messages with Interim Superintendent Larry Madden, none of the board members seemed to follow the above policy.
Did members of the SLCSD board break the law?
Nemelka told FOX 13 he was especially concerned with emails that appear to violate Utah’s Open and Public Meetings Act, a state law this is supposed to prevent elected officials from privately colluding on public policy.
At least one email from Kennedy to the rest of the school board intentionally excluded Nemelka from the conversation.
“Thought you might be interested in an additional set of school safety concerns…” Kennedy wrote on July 8. “I have not bothered to send it to Mr. Nemelka, since I doubt he will be receptive. Please do not respond.”
According to Utah statute 52-4-305, “A member of a public body who knowingly or intentionally violates or who knowingly or intentionally abets or advises a violation of any of the closed meeting provisions of this chapter is guilty of a class B misdemeanor.”
Another email, sent by Kennedy on August 12 regarding “away” football games, also excluded Nemelka.
“Oh, it’s absolutely against the law. Any time you have four or more (board members), even in an email, that’s considered a public meeting,” Nemelka said. “If you text a board member and you send copies of that text to three more, then you are having a public meeting… I was taught this the very first year I was there. You can’t even send an email to four people!”
Nemelka said he plans to bring up the issue at an upcoming board meeting.
“(Kennedy) is just not supposed to do that,” Nemelka said. “I’m going to call them dishonorable individuals.”
"It’s the worst four years I’ve spent in my life, and I spent four years in the marine corps," Nemelka continued. "You can ask my wife, she’d probably give you the same opinion. I’d come home from a board meeting and I wouldn’t even go to sleep that night I was so upset."
According to SLCSD policy, “Board written communications are subject to the Government Records Access and Management Act (“GRAMA”). GRAMA is a Utah law, which permits persons to review and obtain copies of documents which are in the custody and control of the Board and the District, subject to a number of exceptions. Board members should, however, consider all communications they write to potentially be subject to review under GRAMA."
Three of the seven board members (Tuitupou, Nemelka, and Salazar) did not provide any copies of their text messages.
“I’m technology illiterate!” Nemelka said. “I don’t send texts to anybody.”
“Honestly, I delete all my text messages, and that’s just out of habit,” Tuitupou said. “That’s not because of the board stuff. I’ve always done that.”
At least two of the seven board members (Kennedy and Hanson) provided incomplete copies of their text messages.
Although Kennedy responded to the GRAMA request with copies of her text messages with Interim Superintendent Madden, she did not provide copies of any of her messages sent to board members. The profane messages sent to Ford were only provided by Ford.
Although Hanson provided screenshots of his text conversations with multiple board members, some of the messages seemed to be missing. It’s unclear whether this was intentional or unintentional.
Both Kennedy and Hanson declined multiple FOX 13 requests for comment.
"They need to be very transparent about what’s going on, how they feel," Nemelka said. "If they don’t want to say anything, fine, don’t say anything."
According to Utah statute 63G-2-801(3)(a), “A public employee who intentionally refuses to release a record, the disclosure of which the employee knows is required by law, is guilty of a class B misdemeanor.”
According to SLCSD policy, “Board member emails related to the school system and all Board business are subject to disclosure under GRAMA, regardless of what email account is used.”
Yándary Chatwin, a spokesperson for SLCSD, declined to comment on whether board members’ personal and professional email addresses were searched.
Chatwin also declined to comment on what policy exists, if any, requiring members of the district to maintain complete and accurate records.
“I am not able to give an interview, even over email,” Chatwin wrote. “As a body of elected officials, the Board of Education governs itself and the district. The district does not govern the Board. You can read through the Board policies and the Board of Education handbook on our website to find more information.”
If you would like to download and review the emails and text messages, we have uploaded them here.