NORTH CLARENDON — A School Board member’s apology was not enough for some residents at last Wednesday’s Mill River Unified Union School District School Board meeting.
At the start of the meeting, held via Zoom and watched by about more than 40 people, board member Liz Filskov apologized for comments she made in private emails to a fellow board member regarding a former Wallingford Elementary School parent’s request to display an Asian Lives Matter flag in the district.
On June 24, Brian McFarren emailed board member Maria French to request that a “yellow lives matter” flag be displayed. McFarren, a Rutland resident and his two children who live in Wallingford, are Japanese-American.
McFarren has since withdrawn his children from the district due to both the flag issue and the district’s remote-learning plan. He confirmed in an email Monday that he would “no longer push for a flag for the Asian community.”
Several days prior to McFarren’s June request, the board had approved a Mill River High School student’s request to display a Black Lives Matter flag. In the subsequent discussion, the board agreed to display a Pride flag, as well.
After public backlash and threat of legal action, the board ultimately decided to suspend the display of any flags until a district-wide policy was developed. All flag requests, including the BLM and Pride flags, would need to be submitted for consideration under the new policy, which is still being drafted.
However, in a separate email conversation, Filskov emailed French to criticize McFarren’s request and cast doubt on his ethnicity.
“I don’t think Brian McFarren is Asian but who knows it sounds like he’s just being a dick,” Filskov wrote, adding that “people are getting out of hand.”
French pushed back on Filskov, writing, “It’s not out of hand, we’re having a conversation …,” adding, “… I believe his concern for his children is valid. I think the more we engage the better we all will be.”
Last Wednesday, Filskov addressed her comments, and expressed “regret” for assuming that McFarren was giving the board “a hard time” with his request.
“I could have made my point to my fellow board members less crassly. I apologize to Mr. McFarren, to his family, to the community and to the board for making an assumption that was wrong, the optics of which are poor, and for doing so crassly,” she said. “I misrepresented myself, my community and this board. I also wish to thank Mr. McFarren for holding me accountable. I will do better.”
Board Chairwoman Tammy Heffernan read a statement on behalf of the board, noting that “every member of our board is an individual that is responsible for his or her own decisions and actions.”
She clarified that her role as chair is not to supervise board members; rather, it is to facilitate meetings and speak on behalf of the board as instructed.
Heffernan then addressed McFarren, who was on the call, to inform him that the board had received his request on the date it was originally emailed, and “has considered it, at all times, a valid request.
Neither Filskov nor Heffernan responded to multiple requests for comment for this article.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, Heather Juliussen-Stevenson — treasurer of the Rutland County chapter of the NAACP and chairwoman of the Rutland County Democrats — read a statement from NAACP President Tabitha Moore, which welcomed Filskov’s apology and supported the creation of a flag display policy.
Juliussen-Stevenson urged the board to stay the course in the face of opposition.
“Please don’t be distracted by antics or prideful indignation seeking to silence the pursuit of justice,” she stated.
However, the apology did not go far enough for some district residents. Six speakers called for Filskov to step down, citing not only her comments about McFarren, but also comments she has made about other district residents on social media.
In one post, Filskov states that “teaching equity, human rights and fairness should not be devisive (sic),” adding, “Behold our racist neighbors in plain sight.”
In another, she suggests that an individual’s objection to the BLM organization is a symptom of “white supremacy.”
“He cannot comprehend the world through any other lens. That is indoctrination,” she writes.
In addition to being a school board member, Filskov is an active member of the Wallingford Democratic Committee, a justice of the peace, and town chair liaison and alternate state delegate on the Rutland County Democratic Committee. She also works as regional organizer for Rights and Democracy VT, a progressive political action organization.
Tinmouth resident Arne Majorell, who was the subject of Filskov’s “white supremacy” post, addressed the comments, stating they were “appalling” and “could not be further from the truth.”
“It goes against the fabric of my morality and my very faith,” he said, adding that her accusation could potentially damage his career.
Majorell then asked Filskov to apologize to him and his family and requested she step down from the board.
District resident Jesse Williams spoke to express his concern over the disrespect and arrogance he believes the board and Superintendent David Younce have shown to their constituents. He also asked that both Filskov and Heffernan step down.
“Looks like it’s time for voters to weed out the rogue board members and elect board members who respect the people of our community,” he said.
Julie Petrossi, of Wallingford, also called for Filskov’s resignation, pointing out that over the summer Filskov was part of a campaign to get Wallingford Select Board member Patricia Pranger to resign for disparaging comments she had made on social media about two local children and their mother, who she allegedly called a “bimbo.”
“If she (Filskov) sets the standard for public service, then isn’t it fair and just for her to receive the very punishment and condemnation that she has reserved for others with lesser offenses on her own?” Petrossi asked.
Shrewsbury resident Todd Fillmore condemned Filskov’s comments and demanded for her resignation.
“From where I stand, Ms. Filskov’s behavior appears openly defamatory in its essence with no concern for those damaged by the ridiculous public accusations,” he said.
McFarren spoke to restate his displeasure with how Filskov and the board has interacted with him and other constituents over the flag issue.
“A simple apology will not fix this issue, and I hope the board does the right thing to correct this unacceptable and unprofessional behavior, and request Ms. Filskov to step down from the board,” he said.
McFarren continued, stating that the BLM flag request was “given the fast track while my request for a yellow lives matter flag was questioned.”
According to emails obtained by the Herald, French promptly replied to McFarren’s email, and invited him to attend an upcoming meeting to make his request.
“You want me to believe my request was taken seriously just because I was invited to a meeting?” McFarren asked in an email Monday.
Speaking to the Herald on Oct. 12, McFarren acknowledged that French was “professional” and had treated him fairly, but expressed frustration that neither she nor any other board members objected to how Filskov spoke of him.
In that same interview, McFarren said, “I believe school should be flying the American flag in the State flag,” and explained that he had made his request to show them “the can of worms that they were opening by flying flags for different groups.”
In an email Monday, McFarren said he did not accept Filskov’s apology, arguing that it was “insincere” was made only because she got caught for conduct that he alleges has been going on among some school board members for “quite some time.”
Gail Gillam, another district resident, also asked for Filskov’s resignation, claiming her comments were a violation of the Vermont School Boards Association’s code of ethics.
According VBSA’s code of ethics, board members are expected to “voice opinions respectfully and treat with respect other board members, administrators, school staff and members of the public.”
In the MRUUSD Board member conflict of interest policy adopted in 2016, it states that “Board members will be familiar with the VSBA Code of Ethics, and will observe its provisions.”
“As a body that’s charged with oversight of the school district, it is, I would say, the duty of all the members of the board to adhere to the highest ethical standards,” said Sue Ceglowski, executive director of the VSBA, who was speaking generally and not in reference to this specific situation.
“Our recommendation to school boards is that the clearer the board can be about the expectations for board member conduct and a process for addressing unethical conduct the better it will be equipped to address issues if they occur,” she said.
Clarendon resident Madison Akin, who spoke last at Wednesday’s meeting, questioned the sincerity of McFarren’s request, calling it “intentionally antagonizing.”
“If your flag request was really a plea for inclusion and representation, then you’ll be willing to join lots of committees,” she said.
The multiple calls for Filskov’s resignation appear to have been part of a coordinated effort.
Several of the speakers are members of a private Facebook Group called SchoolHawk, founded by Fillmore. A description of the group says it was started to “defend students’ rights to a public education free of political indoctrination, and to defend the most sacred right of all — the right to free speech.”
The group was public until Oct. 14. In a post, Fillmore stated he intended to take the group private “to allow more freedom for people to participate who are in sensitive positions, such as school faculty, etc. This will become more important in the next few days as we begin to really turn up the heat on the Mill River school board — particularly Liz Filskov for her horrible mistreatment of decent people.”
In related business, board member and Policy Committee Chairman Bjorn Behrendt shared a draft of the flag policy with the board and reported that it needed further work before it was ready for final approval.
Younce informed the board that a total of seven flag requests had been made, but under the current draft of the policy, none would be accepted. On Monday, Younce confirmed that all seven requests were under consideration and would be reviewed in accordance with the new policy once it has been adopted by the board.
Younce provided a list of the flag requests along with the date they were issued. They include:
— Black Lives Matter, by MRUHS student Reese Eldert-Moore (June 17)
— Pride, by MRUUSD Board member Andy Richards-Peelle (June 17)
— Yellow Lives Matter, by Brian McFarren (June 24)
— Your Life Matters, (“focused on suicide prevention”), by Anna Majorell (July 23)
— Nonspecific flag (“focused on mentally disabled children”), Anna Majorell (7/23/2020)
— Nonspecific flag (“focused on Native Americans), by Bill Jones (July 23)
— Don’t All Lives Matter? (“focused on Black, Asian, Native, White, unborn”), Todd Fillmore (July 24)