A few months ago, I became pretty impressed with what I observed about the way the Olentangy School Board was run. They are prompt about publishing the minutes of their meetings on their website, and even include audio recordings. Unlike our Board, their meetings often last an hour or more, with a good deal of discussion.
But as time has gone by, I've become less impressed and more disgusted with these folks. Last November, Jennifer Smith was elected to the Board for her first term. Her official bio on their web site says "Ms. Smith has a bachelor's degree in Political Science with a minor in Organizational Communication from The Ohio State University. Prior to her election on the school board she served as a Finance Counselor for Consumer Credit Counseling Service. She and her husband, Matt, have five children." These sound like good credentials for a Board member.
I don't know Ms. Smith, but perceive that she intends to be a voice of change and accountability. There are no other first term Board members, so she appears to starting with a 4-1 disadvantage against the incumbents. At an earlier meeting (April 8, 2008, audio at the 1:00 mark), she dared to suggest that Board members should actually read administrative contracts prior to approving them. She was chastised by Superintendent Scott Davis for seeking to change long standing Board policy.
Superintendent Davis recently resigned for health reasons, so the Board is now engaged in a search for a new Superintendent. An executive session was called to invite a search firm to make a presentation. That use of executive session certainly seems to be a violation of the Sunshine Laws, and they were called on it by resident Jay Siefring, who went so far as to file a complaint with the Ohio Attorney General's office. Board President Scott Galloway consulted with the district's attorney, who said this was a 'grey area' of the law. Appropriately, the Board decided to resolve this by repeating the executive session in a public meeting. Mr. Siefring seems to be a kindred spirit, and I hope to make contact with him. His comments at their April 11 meeting inspired a little déjà vu on my part (at the 2:50 mark).
In May, the Olentangy School Board enacted a new policy that would prohibit the possession – not just use – of recording devices in Executive Sessions, and part of the enforcement would be a requirement that Board members shall leave all electronic communication devices and all personal effects or accessories that could be used to conceal such devices, such as brief cases, purses, backpacks, book bags and overcoats, in the secure possession of the treasurer or designee before entering into executive session." Doesn't that sound a wee bit paranoid? (text provided at Jim Fedalo's blog, audio at 1:50:00)
The latest episode appears to deal with the fact that some of their own students have been declared ineligible for sports next year because those students asked to be allowed to remain at Liberty High School rather than shifting per the redistricting plan to Orange High School, which will open in the fall. The parents of these students have apparently been trying without much success to appeal the decision of the Administration, and so brought their case to the School Board at their June 24th meeting.
Ms. Smith tried to get a discussion of this situation on the Board's agenda for that night, and contacted President Scott Galloway on June 16th (eight days before this meeting) with that request. Mr. Galloway refused to amend the agenda, reportedly saying that Ms. Smith had no second for this agenda item. Doesn't this ignore the fact that the Board votes on the agenda at the beginning of the meeting, giving the Board the chance to remove the requested item if there is really no support?
So when the time for public participation came in the meeting, Ms. Smith stepped down from the Board table and stood to address the Board as a member of the public. President Galloway then asserted that "being a Board Member precludes you from acting in Public Participation." Ms. Smith disagreed – she claimed that a Board member is also a member of the public and very much has a right to address the Board during the public participation time. Mr. Galloway asked for a recess to consult the Board's attorney (audio at 18:16). The Board's attorney agreed with Ms. Smith, and she was given her 5 minutes, just as would any member of the public.
Ms. Smith is trying to bring change to the Olentangy Board, but is finding it all but impossible because she is a minority of one against the other four long-serving members. Meanwhile, I'm cheering Ms. Smith's persistence and inventiveness. I hope she's getting support from the Olentangy community.
School Boards have a personality. It's one part a function of the people currently sitting on the Board and one part the sum of its traditions – practices that are carried forward without question because "it's always been done that way." Tradition vs. Progress: It's a point of conflict in many organizations: commercial, civic and even churches. The initial cries for change come from the minority, who are squelched by a majority which is invested in the status quo. There are only a few ways out of this situation: a) the minority capitulates to the majority, nothing changes, and the minority withdraws – maybe even leaving the organization; b) the majority truly listens to the minority and works with it to find a new way of doing things; or, c) the minority grows impatient and seizes power.
Right now the Hilliard School Board is of the first type (as is the Olentangy School Board). While there are radical changes going on all around them – changes which demand radical thinking – they are hanging on to tradition and past models. The Hilliard School Board is going to get another shot of reality in November, when the levy comes up for vote. They should have been using the months since the March levy defeat to become a majority of the second kind: listening and changing. Sadly, there is no evidence of this happening. The November levy vote could well be the opening battle of our own revolution. Early/absentee voting begins in 88 days.
In November 2009, three Board seats – a majority – are up for election. It will the only opportunity until 2013 to seat a new majority and declare our independence from the past.