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Will a new board restore professionalism to the Salt Lake City School District?

FOX 13 Investigates: Straightening out the School Board
FOX 13 Investigates: Straightening out the School Board
Posted at 10:20 PM, Dec 31, 2020
and last updated 2021-01-01 01:57:12-05

SALT LAKE CITY — The Salt Lake City School District is getting ready to swear in three new board members, each of them promising to restore the district’s reputation after a difficult year of fighting, politics, and profanity.

“We weren’t moving anywhere last year,” said Jenny Sika, who will be representing Precinct 2. “It was just chaos… There’s just so much of a divide, not only in our country, but especially on the school board.”

Parents spent much of 2020 frustrated with a lack of maturity on full display at board meetings.

Although the district’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic led to plenty of disagreement, parents on both sides of the debate said they were disappointed to see conflicts become personal.

On July 21, board president Melissa Ford was visibly choking back tears while looking down at her phone.

Board member Katherine Kennedy, frustrated that the board meeting did not end on time, was bombarding Ford with profane text messages.

FOX 13 obtained the following messages via a public records request. They have been censored.

- 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

Mohamed Baayd, who will be representing Precinct 5 and his home country of Morocco, said he disagrees with the decision to use such profane language in a professional setting.

“That, for me, is something that needs to be absolutely taken care of,” Baayd said. “When I was in the US Navy, transparency was essential… If you have a disagreement with someone, take it to them.”

Also in July, board members Nate Salazar and Samuel Hanson were caught exchanging text messages belittling parents and insulting the principal of West High School.

“I personally don’t swear or say things like that,” said Joél-Léhi Organista, who will be representing Precinct 1. “Our school board was exposed… The last couple of years, politics has become kind of a reality TV show. It’s like, ‘Oh! The next episode of the school board!’ Now we have a new season and new characters.”

Kennedy and Salazar remain on the school board despite calls for their resignation.

“I do understand why people want them to resign, for sure, but people make mistakes,” Sika said. “There’s no room for anybody to judge.”

The new board will be considered the most diverse elected body in Utah.

Baayd and Organista vowed to use their backgrounds to help reach minority students.

“People of color have different ideas,” Organista said. “What I bring to the school board is someone that went through the school district from preschool (as an English language learner).”

“For me, as a parent, as a black man? Mohamed? Immigrant? Veteran in America? To go and sit down with a refugee student, to go and sit down with a refugee parent and just speak their language?” Baayd said. “It’s wonderful.”

Sika said, although she values her heritage as a Pacific Islander, she prefers to focus on unity rather than highlighting differences.

“I think the accomplishment is great in itself, but I don’t believe that should be the focus,” Sika said.

Each of the three elected board members said they plan to approach their new role without considering partisan politics.

“I’m a registered independent, proudly independent, because I think both political parties are ridiculous!” Organista laughed. “I may not be a parent, but I am an alumni. I’m an educator. I’m also an organizer in our community.”

“I’m leaning more independent right now,” Sika agreed.

“I am not affiliated just with one party. This is a position that affects children, and children do not know what a Republican or Democrats are,” Baayd said. “Everyone has one goal, and that is for their kids to have a good education.”

The three board members also said they are hopeful for a safe return to the classroom for students as soon as possible, although they understand everyone has a different definition of safety.

“I think that’s an individual choice,” Sika said. “As for going back to school? I feel it’s closer than ever.”

“I listen to the teachers a lot, because I was a teacher,” Organista said. “If they’re saying (they) feel comfortable in person once we have our vaccines, then that makes sense.”

“For me, we need a vaccine,” Baayd said. “I am hopeful, but I will not be joyful yet until I hear that the first teacher has been vaccinated.”

The board intends to hire a new superintendent to execute new ideas by February or March.

Baayd said he is looking to hire someone who is “loyal.”

“Loyal to school board members. Loyal to stakeholders. Loyal to every individual that runs school, including students,” Baayd said. “I do not just want to hear someone who says, ‘I have experience in this and this and this and this.’ No. The question is: What actions are you going to take?”

The new board hopes it gives parents a reason to remember why the Salt Lake City School District is “Your Best Choice.”

“We’ll see on this next season of ‘The School Board: Salt Lake City’ of how it’s going to be!” Organista said. “I think for all of us it’s going to be something that’s going to be refreshing. It’s going to hopefully be rejuvenating.”

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