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Paducah Public Schools Board Hears Emotional Public Comments On Blackface Photo

Facebook/Paducah Public Schools

The Paducah Public Schools Board of Education heard emotional public commentary at a special meeting Monday evening about a blackface photo of Superintendent Donald Shively that resurfaced last month, many criticizing Shively and some supporting him. 

 Board Chairman Carl LeBuhn said the public commentary during the meeting was to allow for more time for people to express themselves about the photo, following group and individual meetings Shively had with students, parents and faculty. More than a dozen people spoke to the board including some who said they were members of the NAACP. The Paducah-McCracken County NAACP chapter previously called for Shively’s resignation, with community members staging a protest at Paducah Tilghman High School calling for his resignation. 


Martha Emmons, co-owner of a local bike shop, asked the board how the board plans to repair broken student and community trust if Shively remains superintendent. She also asked what consequences other district staff could face in the future following this situation.


“This was a serious lack of judgement and wasn’t addressed for 18 years? How can we trust there haven’t been other lapses of judgement, and how can the board offer these assurances,” Emmons said, referring to Shively’s claim the photo was taken in 2002. “Is discipline to be extended with the same grace to others if they suffer from lapses of judgement?”


The board addressed the photo in early 2019 in executive session, with Shively self-reporting and describing the photo to the board, according to a past statement from LeBuhn. The board decided to let Shively remain because of his remorse and past work for the district.


A few commenters showed support for Shively, including Janice Crawford who cited Shively’s education career and establishment of the district’s Innovation Hub during his tenure.


“Each district in this country has its share of hurdles, but do these districts have a person with the knowledge, the community connections and the perseverance to try and accomplish these fast moving changes? I think not,” Crawford said. “To underestimate all that he’s accomplished for our district would be tragic. To define him for a very improper photograph from 18 years ago? Even more tragic.”


A couple commenters emphasized in their criticism that if Shively is still seen as a dividing force within the community, he shouldn’t be involved in the healing process and community dialogue moving forward. 


“I do not feel that Shively has the capability of helping this community heal, more specifically the minority students and minority families who are deeply hurting by his actions. We cannot be a part of the process in healing with him being the cause of the hurt,” Amina Watkins said. 


Another commenter urged the district to not see the situation “one-dimensionally,” with evidence of growing divides in the community and among district faculty. Anne Bidwell recommended the district hire an outside consultant to examine the “working environment” of the district.


“We need to address this beyond this moment. This needs to be a well thought out, well coordinated, communicated, transparent plan for our future,” Bidwell said. “Who are we as a district? The vision and mission are wonderful. Is that what we’re putting forth into the world?”


After the commenters spoke, Shively again apologized for the photo and touched on the experiences he’s had in meeting with parents, students, and faculty in past weeks over the photo. He said he’s tried to understand the hurt some people are going through, and asked community members not to be condescending toward those who are still hurting over the photo. 


“Honestly and wholeheartedly, I wish I had never made that decision,” Shively said. “I hear and I feel that this has caused a huge breach in trust in me as a person, me as an educator, me as an educational leader.”


Shively said he wanted to continue the dialogue over the photo, as he believes that dialogue is going to be beneficial for the community moving forward.


LeBuhn said the board won’t take immediate action following the meeting because the board’s executive session at the meeting would be the first time the board would be able to discuss recent events regarding the photo, in private. But he added the board will begin reviewing the district’s equity programs, with consideration of an external review of those programs. 


Board member Mary Hunter Hancock said the board had received 139 messages as of Monday evening, some supporting Shively and others suggesting his removal. 


“Many of you here tonight, no doubt, feel like you’re correct, and the board’s only alternative is to take the action you suggest. However, we can’t do that because there’s just too many opinions that range from one end of the spectrum to the other,” Hancock said. “This situation does not come with a perfect solution. No matter what happens, the group is going to take that the action taken or the decision made was not the correct one.”


Yet for one parent among those calling for Shively’s resignation, the commentary from Shively and the board still wasn’t enough. Malinda Jones, a Paducah Public Schools alumnus who was also one of the commenters critical of Shivley at the meeting, doesn’t believe continued dialogue will heal the community until Shively resigns from his position. 


“In history, there’s always people on the right side and wrong side of history, but at the end of the day everybody needs to take a step back and make sure they’re going to be comfortable with the side and the position that they’re on when this is all said and done,” Jones said. 


Jones said she and other community members calling for Shively’s resignation plan to file complaints with the American Civil Liberties Union, the Kentucky Office of Education Accountability, and the Kentucky Education Professional Standards Board.


"Liam Niemeyer is a reporter for the Ohio Valley Resource covering agriculture and infrastructure in Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia and also serves Assistant News Director at WKMS. He has reported for public radio stations across the country from Appalachia to Alaska, most recently as a reporter for WOUB Public Media in Athens, Ohio. He is a recent alumnus of Ohio University and enjoys playing tenor saxophone in various jazz groups."
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