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State School Board confirms interim superintendent amid concerns of conflict

Published: Thursday, Aug. 21 2014 11:55 p.m. MDT

Updated: Friday, Aug. 22 2014 6:54 a.m. MDT

The State School Board ratified the appointment of Joel Coleman as interim state superintendent of public instruction despite concerns that a pending lawsuit filed by Coleman's wife presents a conflict of interest.

Jordan Allred, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Despite several members of the State School Board expressing concern over a potential conflict of interest, the appointment of Joel Coleman as interim state superintendent was confirmed Thursday by a 9-6 vote.

Coleman, a former State School Board member who serves as superintendent of the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind, was named interim state superintendent of public instruction last week.

But since Coleman's appointment, individual board members have objected to the decision being made without a public vote and have questioned whether a pending lawsuit filed by Coleman's wife against the State Charter School Board impedes his ability to serve in the top position at the Utah State Office of Education.

"I think for us to put in as an interim superintendent a person with such a difficult conflict will discourage people in the State Office (of Education)," board member Kim Burningham said. "It will hurt morale further, which is already a challenge in my estimation, and I would think it’s something that Superintendent Coleman would see as something he should not do."

The meeting came days after board member Terryl Warner sent a letter to her colleagues accusing the board's leadership of violating policy by appointing Coleman without the board's consent and calling for an investigation into potential violations of the state's open meetings laws.

The letter also referenced allegations made during a closed meeting that certain board members had misused their authority.

Warner said she received an outpouring of community support after sending her letter, with parents and educators thanking her for raising her concerns.

"I didn’t know that I would get the kind of attention it has gotten, but I have received emails from people not only in my own district but from all over the state," she said.

Rumors of discord have surrounded the State School Board since the sudden departures of State Superintendent Martell Menlove and Deputy Superintendent Brenda Hales, who held the top two positions at the Utah State Office of Education.

Menlove had previously announced his intention to retire when a replacement could be found, but he recently informed the school board that he would be stepping down prior to the hiring of a new state superintendent.

Hales announced her resignation earlier this month.

Warner said that she could not elaborate on the specific rumors and allegations that have been discussed by the board due to those conversations taking place during closed meetings.

But she said the board would benefit from training on when the use of closed meetings is allowed under state law and an investigation into other areas of board conduct.

"I’m not going to back down off that, because there were allegations made that I believe shouldn’t be made," Warner said.

Board Chairman Dave Crandall said Thursday's meeting was "at least in part" a result of Warner's letter.

"There were other board members who also suggested that we meet prior to our next scheduled board meeting to ratify the appointment of Superintendent Coleman, or to go a different route if that’s what the board wants to do," Crandall said.

He said the state's deputy superintendent would typically serve as acting state superintendent during the search for a replacement, but Hale's resignation created a unique scenario for board leadership to respond to.

Crandall said he intended to ask the board to ratify Coleman's appointment at their next regularly scheduled meeting, but a special meeting was called to address the concerns of board members.

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