It had been a hard fought election for Board Chairperson. Of the nine members of the Nutmeg Board of Education, five were new. After many years on the Board, Veteran Board member Bob Bombast finally saw an opening to become Chairperson, and he went for it, big time. He sent a barrage of emails to the new Board members, even before they were sworn in. Bob tried everything to persuade the new members to support him for Board Chairperson. He promised committee chairmanships. He told them how happy he was finally to be serving with intelligent people. He even raised questions about whether the current Chairperson has a drinking problem. Unfortunately for Bob, however, two of the new Board members had no interest in giving Bob a bigger stage for his drama. When the vote was finally taken, Mr. Chairperson was reelected by a five-to-four vote.
Mr. Chairperson had a chance to be gracious in victory, but it was not to be. He decided to teach Bob and his followers a lesson. Mr. Chairperson appointed his supporters to all of the committee chair positions, and though Bob had chaired the Personnel Committee for many years, that assignment was given to another Board member. Bob and his supporters were out in the cold.
Bob did not take these developments lying down. The Board’s Bylaws provide that, at the end of each meeting, Board members have an opportunity to propose new agenda items for the next meeting. When the Board came to that part of the agenda, Bob’s hand shot up. Mr. Chairperson tried not to notice Bob, but Bob’s vocalizations while waving his hand made it impossible to do so, and he recognized Bob.
“We need to add an agenda item limiting your authority,” Bob stated. “You aren’t God, you know! We need to give power back to the people.”
“That isn’t going to happen. The Board elected me Chairperson, and with that office come the prerogatives of the Chair,” Mr. Chairperson responded. “Changes to our Bylaws will be considered only if and when I decide to propose them.”
On this acrimonious note, Mr. Chairperson banged his gavel to end the meeting. But Bob was not done. The next day, Bob delivered a handwritten petition signed by him and the three new Board members who had supported him. The petition demanded that Mr. Chairperson place on the agenda Bob’s proposals to amend the bylaws to restrict the authority of the Chairperson. However, Mr. Chairperson laughed and shot an email to the four Board members, telling them to “give it up.”
Then Bob announced by email that he was calling a meeting himself. He even posted an agenda in Town Hall that included two items, “Amendment of Bylaws and Removal of the Board Chair.” By this time, Mr. Chairperson’s retaliatory behavior had antagonized the rest of the Board members, even his former supporters. As a result, everyone but the Chairperson attended the meeting Bob had called.
Do these eight Board members have the right to take action at this “meeting”?
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Board members should serve their communities better than did either Bob or Mr. Chairperson here. However, this situation reminds us that the role of the chair is to facilitate board operation, not to control it.
Control of the agenda is a critical function because boards of education can act only by addressing agenda items through votes at publicly-called meetings. By establishing appropriate agendas, boards of education can assure that they operate in an effective manner. For most boards of education, the bylaws address the process of setting the agenda. Typically, the chairperson and the superintendent set the agenda for the coming board meeting. In so doing, the chairperson and superintendent should be respectful of the wishes of other board members. Board meetings should not get bogged down with pet agenda items supported only by a few members. But here Mr. Chairperson was thwarting the will of a significant number of Board members.
A longstanding statutory provision gives guidance on when a matter should be included on the agenda. Connecticut General Statutes Section 10-218 provides in relevant part:
A meeting is simply a series of agenda items, and thus this provision appears to mean that three board members can independently call a meeting on an agenda item, as Bob did, if the chairperson will not include that agenda item in a regular or special meeting. However, three board members alone would not create the quorum necessary for action, and thus this approach would work only if the three (or more) members calling such a meeting can get a quorum of the full Board to the meeting.
Agenda items also raise Freedom of Information Act issues. Under the FOIA, the agenda item must “fairly apprise the public of the business to be conducted.” Thus, some specificity in describing agenda items is important. “Board operations,” for example, would be overly vague. However, an agenda item that is overly specific can be equally problematic. If the agenda item is “Discussion of” a specified topic, board action on that item would not be proper. A general formulation of “discussion and possible action on…” the agenda item avoids this problem and permits the board to action when it wishes.
More generally, board bylaws describe the authority of the board chair. Often bylaws provide that the chairperson appoints committee members and/or chairs of committees. Sometimes, that authority is subject to board approval, sometimes not. The significant point here is simply that the board itself through bylaw determines what authority to delegate to its chair.
Finally, Bob Bombast and other Board members must remember that every email they send that pertains to the business of the Nutmeg Board of Education is a public record under the Freedom of Information Act. Interestingly, emails exchanged by the new Board members before their election are not subject to disclosure under the FOIA, because they were not public officials until they are sworn in. But whenever Bob or any other Board member receives a copy of any email relating to Board business, even one from persons not on the Board, that email becomes a public record.