When your tax dollars work against your interests, something is wrong.
I attended the New Hampshire School Boards Association “Annual New School Board Orientation and Board Chair Workshops” on May 3, 2016. Since I am not a new board member, I asked to attend the board chair workshop and was kindly given leave to do so. This fried Timberlane’s chairman Peter Bealo who said during the workshop that he would not comment because I was present. Mr. Bealo’s comment wasn’t the only objectionable takeaway from the instruction/discussion that night.
The workshop was broken into three parts.
PART ONE: “Conducting Effective School Board Meetings,” a lecture by their resident lawyer, Barrett Christina, who is also NHSBA’s Deputy Executive Director. He suggested a number of things which are intended to serve boards very well, but which I heartily believe are not in the best interest of the public:
- Establish a consent agenda for “routine matters, such as minutes and monthly expenses, which can be approved together without discussion.” I wish our board got monthly expense reports! Your board, however, has no interest in “micromanaging” the affairs of the SAU so they don’t want to see any numbers ever, but you can be sure if we were given monthly expense reports that they would be worth a comment or two – and even a question to the Business Administrator. As for our minutes, these have often taken the form of political whitewashes for what actually transpires in our meetings. Not infrequently in the past, my vote has been mistakenly recorded.
A consent agenda works for legislation at the State House. It does not work at the board level where everything should be open for comment and question. Why else is it being given to us for a vote?
Peter Bealo complained in the workshop that it takes his board forever to get through minutes. He didn’t add that our minutes in the past have been riddled with issues. My objections to the inaccuracies and whitewashes in our minutes past has become an embarrassment to the board. The correct response is to improve the minutes, which I’m happy to say have considerably improved of late.
2. Mr. Christina advocates that minutes should be nothing more than a record of the action taken by the board and need include no more than what is set out by statute – those present, time and place, motions and brief summary of discussion. He emphasized “brief.” Following this advice would make our main minutes as skeletal as our non-public minutes. This does not serve the public’s interest and is a prime example of how the NHSBA is advising school board chairman and school board members generally to put their interests above the interests of the public they have been elected to serve.
Attorney Christina’s advice on minutes should have been
- don’t make your minutes political in any way
- accurately and fairly capture public comment
- fairly set out the reasons for votes both in support and against all motions
- correctly record everyone’s vote
Please understand that I’m not criticizing the work of any employee in my comments because I know that what is expected in these minutes comes from higher authorities than the minute writer – and that is the issue here.
3. Mr. Christina also emphasized that “New Business” should not have any surprises. Currently New Business is the only place on the agenda where TRSB members can bring up issues. Our opportunity to get issues included on the agenda is minuscule. All three of my motions to add things to future agendas were soundly rejected by the board at the April 21 meeting. TRSB also voted down discussing a registered letter we received with serious concerns about our Articles of Agreement. Mr. Christina’s advice, in my opinion, erects another impediment to elected officials in conducting their representation.
4. Mr. Christina also said that policies should be ready for board approval when they come out of policy committee and that really there should be no need for multiple readings. Yes, this is what our board would like, too, so no one really has to think about their primary function and just entrust it to a few on the policy committee who are outnumbered by administration – if they should ever again have a difference of opinion now that I have been removed from the policy committee.
In fairness, a few good suggestions did come out of the discussion.
- Mr. Christina suggested that subcommittee minutes should be included in agenda packets. TRSB as a whole never sees committee minutes. Oddly enough, I motioned at the April 21th school board meeting to have all standing committee draft minutes emailed to the board when they are prepared. TRSB voted this down.
- A chairman in the audience said that her board has an agenda heading; “Agenda items for next meeting.” (Someone probably took this chairman aside and browbeat some sense into her later.)
- Someone else in the audience suggested a “two-week rule” whereby something introduced to the board in one meeting can be voted only only at the next meeting. This prevents the board from being steamrollered. TRSB has no such policy or procedure. We are as flat as cardboard cutouts.
PART TWO: “Building Positive Relations with the Public and the Press.”
Much of this discussion was taken up with techniques for suppressing board members with minority opinions from speaking to the press. By coincidence a chairman sitting next to me said, “I don’t agree with that. Haven’t they heard about Plaistow?”
“That was me,” I said.
“Thank you,” he responded. “I give that article to all my board members.”
He is referring TRSB’s School Board Rules fiasco in 2014 that disallowed individual board members from speaking to the press or criticizing a board decision in public. The NH ACLU stepped in to rescue our First Amendment rights, not to mention our duty as elected representatives of our towns.
Yes, despite the black eye Timberlane got when mightily beaten up in the press, the NHSBA is still urging board chairmen to reign in their members so that the press gets a unified message. Not only that but School Board member ethics policy was brought up as a way to entrap board members into behaving as they are told. The ethics policy, which all board members are asked to sign, requires members to support all decisions made by the board. (I refuse to sign this because of this provision and don’t you think Mr. Bealo piped up to say, “She won’t even sign the Ethics Policy!”) Ted Comstock, NHSBA Executive Director, said that an elected board member could be removed from the board for consistently violating policy.
This is patently false, but why not instill this falsehood in chairmen to embolden their persecution of minority opinion on their boards? By law, elected officials can be removed from office for only two reasons – stealing and violation of confidentiality with a material consequence.
Someone in the audience getting into the spirit of things said that the liability insurance provided to board members would not extend to rogue board members violating policy. I wonder how that would work when challenged in court: unconstitutional policy leads to (illegal) withholding of board member’s liability insurance?
PART THREE: Board Chair Roundtable and Best Practices
Much of the roundtable discussion had to do with suppressing public comment at school board meetings. It was received wisdom in the room that no boards should respond to public comment. It was said that meetings are not a forum for educating the public. And that, in a nutshell, is the attitude that travels like a virus from the NHSBA to every school board in the state. We, the almighty school board, do not have to answer to you, peon parents and taxpayers! It is exactly this warped attitude that justifies chairmen in having parents shut down at meetings and/or seeking their arrest as happened in Alton, NH. http://aclu-nh.org/aclu-nh-settles-alton-free-speech-case-for-42500/
Mr. Christina also encouraged chairmen to have their boards adopt a policy that limits public comment to agenda items only.
You got an issue? You can’t handle an issue! Speak to the agenda or don’t speak at all.
Ask yourself, as I have, who these misguided opinions are serving. It is clearly not the elected officials who have an obligation to represent their constituents with every atom of their best efforts and to respond to their concerns. To me, it is clear that this organization exists to advance the interests of SAUs and puppet school boards. They do this also by active lobbying at the state legislature, too.
If NHSBA lost its funding, I would salvage only their model policy bank and their collective agreement database, both of which could be maintained by dedicated volunteers. What about their legal advice service? Since the district is NHSBA’s client, not individual school board members, the association does not give advice to individual elected officials. For those districts without boards that allow unlimited legal expenses as does TRSD, this function could easily be taken over by the NH Municipal Association.
Looking for cuts, Gov. Hassan? Let me point the way.
The opinions expressed in this article are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect any organization of which I am a member.