By Ed Steele |
At the August 8th governing board meeting for Mesa Public Schools (MPS), conservative board member Rachel Walden was attacked and silenced. Apparently, her line of questioning and discussion of agenda items did not fit the approved district narrative and ruffled the feathers of fellow board member Kiana Sears.
Two of the items pulled from the consent agenda by Mrs. Walden were for the renewal and expansion of non-competitive contracts for mental health services to be provided by A New Leaf and Empact on campus at two district schools. In discussion on the first item, the contract with A New Leaf, Mrs. Walden was questioning the wisdom of giving A New Leaf space in schools to provide mental health services rather than simply referring students in need to mental health services available in the community.
“As difficult as the mental health crisis is, we need to stay in our lane and do everything that we can to improve student outcomes. So where are the afterschool tutoring programs? That’s something I’ve been asking for a long time,” said Mrs. Walden. She continued, “We should focus on what we’re tasked with doing and then we can refer out the other services.”
The reasoning behind this discussion was to point out that by bringing mental health services into the schools, the district would be diluting its resources with activities other than the one that is statutorily mandated, which is education. Mesa Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Andi Fourlis remarked, “When we talk about bringing partners into our school system, we use partners only when we have exhausted all of the resources available at the school. That is counselors, social workers, psychologists…that are working to solve the many challenges of children. So, when we have run out of all of our skills and assets, that’s when we would rely upon a community partner.”
Mrs. Walden questioned how the district could be exhausting all resources when it has more than the state average of school counselors. The district has 2.5 times the number of school counselors as the state average on a per student basis.
Superintendent Fourlis commented that having the resources on campuses alleviated logistical issues with parents getting their children to the outside service. She said, “Providing services closest to the student to reduce the amount of instructional time is very important…. Often times, there’s just not enough services available, and so bringing them to school where they can take students out of class for a 30-minute time perhaps versus having to take a half a day out of school, drive, get to an appointment, and so on. It becomes access and convenience for the families.” Mrs. Walden nullified that justification by correctly noting that mental health care providers will come to a student’s home.
In the middle of this exchange between Mrs. Walden and Superintendent Fourlis, otherwise disinterested board member Kiana Sears interrupted the conversation and called for the question essentially silencing Mrs. Walden’s inquiry into the details of the agenda item. The call for the question was seconded by Dr. O’Reilly, thereby ending the discussion and forcing a vote on the agenda item. To his credit, Dr. O’Reilly recognized that seconding the call to the question was a mistake and later apologized to Mrs. Walden for silencing her voice. Mrs. Sears has yet to acknowledge such contrition.
After silencing Mrs. Walden and moving to the vote on renewal and expansion of the contract with A New Leaf, President Hutchinson proceeded to carry water for A New Leaf, lauding its 52 years of service “to our families and our kids” and that it is “very well respected for the decades of work that they have done to keep this community whole.” She went on to say, “A New Leaf has been there, and this is an amazing organization that is local, and they are embedded in our community and in our schools and have been for years, decades as a matter of fact. So, let’s move on to the next agenda item…”
The next agenda item pulled by Mrs. Walden was similar to the first one—the approval of the contract for Empact to provide on-site mental health services on campus. During the discussion, Mrs. Walden questioned how these providers (A New Leaf and Empact) were chosen. Superintendent Fourlis responded, “I will tell you that this is an interesting question. As needs have arised (sic), throughout our community, we have responded, and community partners have responded differently. There is a scarcity of resources available, and so when our schools and our parents are asking for the help, we are grabbing the help that we can. And so there is not a plethora of services…and so to answer your very specific question, we did not do an RFP process.”
Did you catch that? “Community partners responded differently”? Responded to what? Community partners have never received a notice to respond to.
And what does Superintendent Fourlis mean by, “we are grabbing the help where we can”? While she’s making it sound like a desperate grasp for services of a couple of randomly selected organizations, it is actually closer to a pre-arranged preferred selection.
Consider this. Mesa Public Schools and A New Leaf have shared a cozy relationship for years. A New Leaf’s CEO, Michael Hughes, previously served on the governing board of MPS for 20 years from 1994-2014. No doubt, he made lots of close friends in the district during his tenure. In 2021, the MPS Governing Board, including President Hutchinson, approved what appears to be a very favorable lease agreement to A New Leaf for district owned office space. (See image below)
Then, in 2022, no less than 3 members of A New Leaf’s management, including Michael Hughes, donated to President Hutchinson’s re-election campaign. Now in 2023, the governing board, including President Hutchinson, has voted to renew and expand a non-competitive contract for A New Leaf to provide services on MPS campuses. And the narrative the superintendent is pushing is that A New Leaf was chosen because they responded to some non-existent public call for services and that there is a scarcity of services in the community.
As Mrs. Walden was challenging Superintendent Foulis’ claim of scarcity of services, again, disinterested Mrs. Sears interrupted the conversation to express her “outrage” at Mrs. Walden for her line of questioning and discussion. But questions and discussions based on Mrs. Walden’s interactions with her constituents are how a representative government is supposed to operate. She is seemingly the only board member acting as the representative of the community by engaging in such questioning and discussions rather than just rubber stamping every agenda item that is presented.
But that didn’t stop Mrs. Sears from fabricating a false narrative toward the end of the meeting that Mrs. Walden believes the district should just “turn our backs on our parents and our kids.” Mrs. Sears expressed anger at Mrs. Walden based on that false narrative, and this dangerous and dishonest behavior incited community anger toward Mrs. Walden. You would think President Hutchinson, who was presiding over the meeting, would have stopped this unfounded attack on Mrs. Walden. But instead, she allowed it to continue without calling the meeting back to order and telling Mrs. Sears that she was violating the district code of ethics.
Not only is President Hutchinson complicit in Mrs. Sears’ dangerous and dishonest behavior, but it has become clear. Conservative voices in Mesa Public Schools are not welcome. And any conservative who dares to challenge the preferred narrative will be bullied and silenced. It once again goes to show you: elections have consequences, especially at the local level.
You can watch the portion of the meeting discussing A New Leaf below.
Ed Steele is a husband, father, grandfather, and Mesa resident with a passion for helping the younger generation succeed in education.