Board of Education, Generally

This article first appeared in the September 2019 CABE Journal.

In the wake of violence affecting schools around the country, school districts nationwide are
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The Nutmeg Board of Education is in the thick of its budget deliberations, and the members are having trouble establishing priorities. Board members Red Cent
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As the holiday break grows near, the members of the Nutmeg Board of Education have been on their best behavior, almost mellow in tone, dutifully moving through the agenda for each meeting. Things changed at the meeting last week, however, when veteran Board member Bob Bombast moved to add an item to the agenda: Investigation into Unauthorized Trip. Fellow Board member Mal Content was intrigued, and he seconded the motion without knowing what Bob was planning. Now everyone was curious, and the Board voted unanimously to add the item to the agenda.

“What on earth are you talking about, Bob?” asked Mr. Chairperson.

“I heard from reliable sources,” responded Bob, “that the Nutmeg Concert Band is going to Europe over the holiday break. I want to know who authorized this trip, because I know that the Board certainly did not.”

Mr. Superintendent was only too happy to respond. “I did. As you recall, the Board authorized a similar trip last year. And the year before that. And the year before that. Given that past practice, I figured that I would just save you all the trouble, and I approved the trip. The Band Director got a great deal on the tickets, and the venues are all set. Do you have any other questions?”

“I certainly do,” Bob responded with a steely tone. “How dare you approve this trip on your own? This is Board business!”

Fearing an argument, Mr. Chairperson suggested that Bob and Mr. Superintendent continue their discussion in executive session. However, Bob carried on. “What about liability?” Bob asked. “How can you let our students go on an unapproved trip? I can’t imagine that our insurance would cover that!”

At this point, the other Board members grew concerned about Bob’s diatribe, and Penny Pincher texted Mal Content, asking him to do something. However, Mal texted back that he shared Bob’s concern about the field trip, and he went on to express his own concerns about Mr. Superintendent’s “lack of respect” for the Board. Before Penny could text back, however, local reporter Nancy Newshound from the Nutmeg Bugle interrupted the meeting. “Point of order,” she shouted out. “I see Board members texting each other. This is an outrageous violation of the Freedom of Information Act, and I will be filing a complaint with the FOIC.”

Mal quickly put away his cellphone, but Penny responded angrily to Nancy. “My texts on my personal cell phone are no business of yours!”

Mr. Chairperson ruled both Penny and Nancy out of order, stating that the question of texts was not in the agenda and should not be the subject of discussion. But Nancy got in one more shot: “You are on notice that I will be making an FOIA requests for those texts tomorrow morning, and you had better not delete them. Understood?” Mal understood all too well, and as soon as he got home, he deleted the text messages, figuring that they were just texts that he did not have to keep.

The next morning Nancy made good on her threat, submitting a written request for all Board member text messages sent by and between the Board members, both during the meeting and afterwards.

Was it OK for Mal to delete his texts about Mr. Superintendent?
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As the Nutmeg Board of Education prepares for new budget season, Board member Mal Content is worried about the budget discussions becoming antagonistic and personal. The last budget season had been brutal, but people were generally civil and respectful in their comments on the budget. However, the last year has been hard on civility in public discourse at the local, state and federal levels of government, and Mal was worried that during budget deliberations the Board will experience the rude behavior seen too often these days on the television news.

Mal would not have to wait long. Seymour Dollars, the venerable Chairperson of the Nutmeg Board of Finance, invited the Board of Education to a preliminary meeting to provide “guidance” to the Board during the budget process. Ms. Chairperson of the Board of Education saw little choice but to play ball and ask her colleagues on Board of Education to suck it up and attend the meeting.

When Seymour called the meeting to order a few days later, he grandly announced, “This is my meeting,” he intoned, “and the members of the Board of Education are here as my guests.” Though it was early in the meeting, veteran Board of Education member Bob Bombast lost his composure. “It is our meeting too, you old windbag,” Bob blurted out. Seymour glared and ruled Bob out of order, cautioning Bob that he would be ejected from the meeting if he kept it up.

“We have invited the Board of Education here to remind our spendthrift colleagues that money is still tight. We suggest that you follow the zero-based budget approach and ask for more money only if there is a compelling need for it. Got it?” The Board members didn’t want to dignify Seymour’s condescending suggestion with a response. However, as they walked out quietly, Seymour called after them, “Remember, we are waiting for your suggestions for efficiencies and collaboration!”

In the weeks that followed, the Board of Education struggled to come up with a low-increase budget, and at the public hearing on the Board budget, it was the public’s turn to get testy. Bruno, President of the Nutmeg Union of Teachers, was first up, and he was anything but deferential. “This budget is a sham, and you are all cowards,” he shouted. To the applause of his union coterie, he sat down. But the criticism continued unabated. The PTO President was in high dudgeon as well, accusing the Board members of being “traitors” to the cause of high quality education. With that, a group of parents stood up and started waiving signs and chanting, “Traitors, Traitors.”

Ms. Chairperson had never seen anything like it, and she banged and banged on her gavel to restore order. Eventually, the group quieted down, but whenever Ms. Chairperson tried to move on with the Board meeting, the claque from the PTO stood back up and started chanting again. Eventually, Ms. Chairperson gave up trying, and over the din she asked whether there was a motion to adjourn. Bob Bombast made the motion, which was quickly seconded and passed unanimously.

Did Ms. Chairperson have any alternative here?
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Mr. Chairperson has had his hands full with two new members of the Nutmeg Board of Education. Mal Content and Chrissie Critical were elected to the Board just last November, but they quickly started antagonizing Mr. Chairperson and the other Board members. Nothing, it seemed, was right in their view. Mal and Chrissie complained at the Board meetings about the “do-nothing” Board, and they repeatedly complained by email to all the other Board members. Some Board members tried to respond to their concerns by return email, but the disaffected two were unmoved and continued to find fault with the Board.

Mal and Chrissie were frustrated, they claimed, because Mr. Chairperson was thwarting their reform efforts. They had both repeatedly asked that an item be added to the Board meeting agenda – appointment of a special counsel to investigate Board member collusion with Seymour Dollars, venerable Chair of the Nutmeg Board of Finance. They claimed that Seymour was pulling the strings on Board decision-making, and they wanted the other Board members to be questioned under oath as to what Seymour Dollars has said to them and when he said it. They even suggested that Mr. Chairperson take an straw poll of the Board members by email, claiming that he would find that a majority of the Board members agree with their request. However, Mr. Chairperson stonewalled them, telling them that such a witch hunt would not be allowed on his watch.

Finally, the other Board members had had it with the disaffected two, and speaking for the others, veteran Board member Bob Bombast proposed at a special meeting to add an item to the agenda – “Executive session for the purpose of evaluation of the performance of two difficult Board members.” Before the motion could even be seconded, however, Mal spoke up, stating the any discussion as to his efforts to straighten out the “dysfunctional” Board of Education should be held in open session. Chrissie weighed in as well, claiming that she would not be a party to any attempt secretly to defame her and interfere with her efforts to clean house.

“Never mind,” Bob responded. “If we can’t have a candid discussion about these two trouble-makers in executive session, we’ll just have a more general discussion in executive session about Board operation.” With that, the Board voted to convene into executive session. Not surprisingly, however, the discussion of “Board operation” soon devolved to an angry exchange between the other Board members and Mal and Chrissie about how they as Board members were misbehaving.

Mal and Chrissie were unchastened, and they decided to pursue their crusade through FOI requests. They asked for any and all email communications between and among any member of the Board and/or with Seymour Dollars concerning budget matters. Pushing hard, they demanded that all such emails be produced within four business days, “in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act,” they said.

Mr. Superintendent responded within four business days, informing Mal and Chrissie that the district is working on their request, but it will take some weeks to find, review and produce all of the emails.

Can Mal and Chrissie file an FOIA complaint, and will they win?
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