I attended a city council meeting about two months back. The debate that evening was about whether or not the city council should voice support for an evidentiary hearing included in the Polymet mining permit process. The council, knowing the chamber would be filled with citizens interested only in this issue, wisely moved the Polymet debate up on its agenda, rather than conducting a whole list of other business first.
   By contrast, the DFL-endorsed majority members of the school board almost invariably put matters of specific importance to the public at the bottom of their agenda, and then refuse to budge. They make the public wait, while they slog through all their other business.
Some Board members have been tussling with the rulers of the boardroom, ever since they found out Many Rivers Montessori school made three offers on district property they weren’t even told about. They only discovered the offers were on the table when Many Rivers wrote a letter to the Board, requesting the “courtesy” of a meeting to discuss a possible transaction. These three minority members–Johnston, Oswald and Welty–tried to add a resolution to the last regular meeting to honor this request, only to have their resolution altered by the majority.
   After a considerable brouhaha, the majority relented a bit. They allowed Many Rivers to show up at this Business Committee meeting, but made it emphatically clear from the onset they weren’t going to talk about policy. In truth, they weren’t at all interested in talking to Many Rivers Montessori, but realized they had to at least orchestrate another dog-and-pony show in front of the camera. As usual, however, they couldn’t even manage to fake it all without a hitch.
Why wouldn’t they have been a little more accommodating to the public? Why in the world wouldn’t they have given just an inch more to their minority colleagues, who requested moving the item concerning Many Rivers up on the agenda?
Is it just a power trip?

   At the start of the Business Committee meeting, Member Oswald put her light on, prompting Committee Chair Sandstad to ask: “Member Oswald, do you have something from the get-go?”
   “I was just going to formally request that we move our discussion with the Many Rivers Montessori personnel up to the front of the agenda, so they don’t have to sit through all of this stuff. It’s the very last thing on the agenda–”
“It is!” Committee Chair Sandstad cut her off. “Let’s get through the rest of it, here. This is almost all repeat stuff, so I think we can do it.”
Member Oswald reminded the Chair that it was “part of” the minority members’ agenda request to have the agenda item near front of the meeting.
   “Well, we could spend more time on this, or we could get through everything.” Chair S. replied, her voice clipped, all business. I’m saying, ‘Lets go forward.’ I don’t think this is a committee at which we vote…”
Member O. asked the Chair of the Board, Annie Harala, to weigh in.
“You’ve asked for her opinion?” The Committee Chair observed. “Chair Harala, do you have an opinion on this?”
   Not surprisingly, the Chair of the Board backed the Chair of the Committee: “I back the point of the Chair.” The Chair said. “I would say, at the end of the day, we’re going to be discussing a robust agenda tonight--that’s what’s important. So I honor the Chair’s wishes.”
   Thank God for Chairs. Where would we be in this world without Chairs? We all have to honor the wishes of our Chairs.
The meeting plodded on for a few interminable minutes, slogging through its “robust” agenda, before the Lone Ranger returned everyone to the yet-unresolved issue.
   “I’m going to make a motion to move the Many Rivers Montessori item up on the agenda.” Member Johnston announced in his deep, gravelly voice, wading fearlessly into the weeds, as usual. “So we can talk about it immediately.”
“I’m not a Robert’s Rules of Order expert, but I don’t think we take motions at Committee meetings.” The Committee Chair countered, her voice again clipped, business-like.
   “I ask that we–” The Lone Ranger started to say, but Committee Chair Sandstad cut him off:
“Anybody else? Nope? Kay–”
“Well, then, I’ll appeal and raise a point of order.”
“So–!” The Chair exclaimed, her voice turning sharper. “I’ve said (or, more accurately, decreed) that we’re going through it--the agenda, here--and we have started that. Let’s get through it!”
“I’ve raised a point of order to the Chair, her decision–!” Member Johnston parried, his gravelly voice also getting a bit louder and more emphatic. By now, both “colleagues” were glaring openly at each other.
   Committee Chair Sandstad, clearly in no mood to take any more guff, cut the Lone Ranger off. “Do you want to take–?” She paused then, holding back what she started to say, glaring. “Go ahead!”
“Yeah–I’m raising a point of order.”
“Are you asking if I’m going to change my mind?”
“No–I’m raising a point of order. Raising a point of order means that the body (the rest of the Board) is questioning the decision of the Chair.”
“How much time would you like to spend on this?”
“Until it’s resolved.”
   “I’ve offered my resolution (which, in essence, was: do what I say.) Would you like to call this to a halt? This whole meeting? Is that your intent?”
(The nice folks from Many Rivers Montessori, incidentally, were sitting in the boardroom, waiting and watching.)
“No–my intent is to raise a point of order. You made the decision that we would–that you would–not move this (item) forward. I’ve raised a point of order on that decision.”
   “And I’m going to remain with the same (imperial) decision.”
“Then I will appeal that decision.”
“What’s your understanding of what an appeal means, here?”
“An appeal means that the body then can look at, and the body then decides–not the Chair–whether or not to listen to the concern. And my concern is to move that (item) up on the agenda. So that means that it’s in front of the body to make the decision on whether or not to overrule you–the Chair.”
At this point, both verbal gladiators parried with simultaneous arguments: one said, “Let’s make this –” and the other said, “There’s a discussion on that and there’s a vote on it.”
Someone off-mic–I believe it was Chair Harala–said: “We don’t vote,” and Committee Chair Sandstad jumped on this ‘logic’ with gusto: “We don’t vote in Committee!”
“Don’t Vote At Committee!!”
“According to Robert’s Rules of Order, there is a motion allowed in anything that happens. Committee meetings also follow Robert’s Rules of Order.”
“Cite me a rule!”
   Clerk Loeffler-Kemp interjected a few words, then Committee Chair Sandstad said with a clipped note of finality: “All right! So, we’re going to continue, here–.”
“You have to have a vote on my–.”
“I don’t think we do have to have a vote!” (Actually readers, remember there is a boardroom precedent of sorts about not voting: the DFL-endorsed power clique jammed the entire Red Plan down our throats without a vote.)
The Chair, clearly riled up and ready to exert full Executive Power, went on: “I think you’re making up an appeal. I think we’re in Committee. We don’t vote. You’re not citing a rule to me. And We Are Going To MOVE ON. We’re not going to WASTE any more time–!”
   As member Oswald had, the Lone Ranger next appealed to the Chair of the Board–Annie Harala–to weigh in. Again, no drums of suspense rolled in anticipation about what the Top Chair would say: “I support the decision of the (Committee) Chair on this, and this is not--we don’t vote at these committee meetings. We actually vote at the public school board meetings…and we just keep making this longer, so let’s just get to the discussion at hand…”
   The Board Chair indicated that she would like ask a question about another agenda item, and the Lone Ranger finally tossed in his towel, grousing, “I’m glad lawyers know how to run meetings.”
Pointedly ignoring this remark, the Committee Chair said with crisp officiousness: “Member Harala, you have a question on the APU–go right ahead.”
A “win” worth another fight, wasn’t it?

   For years, the Board’s controlling members have tried to elevate Chair positions to something akin to judges in legal proceedings, able to rule without further process. The problem is: a Chair is not a judge. (And even judges are subject to review.) A Chair is part of a deliberative body, which is governed by parliamentary rules. And parliamentary rules have a set process for deciding procedural disputes. The whole purpose of Robert’s Rules is provide an orderly way to move a meeting forward, when a conflict arises.
   The claim that the Board can’t vote during Committee meetings is simply inaccurate, and particularly disconcerting because this “ruling” was set forth by the Board’s only attorney, and backed up by the Board’s Chair.
The Board doesn’t vote on action items during the Committee meeting, but I’m not sure that they can’t–they have a quorum and it is a public meeting. But they definitely can, and should, vote on procedural issues whenever a conflict over how to proceed ensues. The argument that the entire Board doesn’t have the power to vote on procedural issues, and therefore the Chair of a Committee can just rule unilaterally without appeal is illogical to its core.
In such a situation, you don’t have a deliberative body. You have a show trial with a Hanging Judge.
   Why in the world wouldn’t the Chair have just allowed a Board vote on her appeal? My understanding of the rules is that discussion isn’t even required. All she had to do was ask for a vote on the motion, which the majority would have won, and then moved on.
   Besides providing some check-and-balance on the Chair’s power, there is another reason for a vote: it permanently records the action of each Board member. In this case, everyone would know which Board members supported the Committee Chair’s refusal to move the public’s presentation up on the agenda.
This rule we’ll follow; that one we won’t.

   There is a pattern in the boardroom. If the Board’s majority members find a rule they want to follow--such as a policy stating that the district won’t sell property to other educational organizations–that rule instantly becomes inflexible, set in concrete. All other rules are more arbitrary. When Chair Harala actually took the time to look up a parliamentary rule during a meeting a few months back, I was hopeful we’d finally moved past the days when Judy Seliga-Punyko declared from her throne that Robert’s Rules “are not a law.”
Judy S.-P. and most the other DFL Chairs have for years considered themselves the law.
   The crux of many boardroom problems is that after every election cycle the DFL-endorsed winners waltz in, take over all the Chair positions, and none of them are even remotely close to being experts in Robert’s Rules of Order, much less their own policies. Four Board policies–8070, 8095, 9065, 203.2–reference Robert’s Rules. Policy 203.2, adopted by the Board just last February (2/23/16) states: “Any question of order arising, not provided for in these bylaws, shall be decided according to parliamentary rules for the government of deliberative bodies, as defined by Robert’s Rules of Order.”
   According to Robert’s Rules, committees operate under the Board’s “bylaws, the parliamentary authority and any special rules of order.” No special rules governing committee parliamentary procedure are laid out in the Board’s policies.
It is unfair to demand that individual Board members “cite” rules during a meeting; they are not lawyers presenting a case. It is the Chair’s responsibility to know the rules, and if he or she doesn’t know them, to find out. The Chair is not a judge, or, for that matter--a King or Queen. A Chair is supposed to be a facilitator, making certain a meeting is run properly according to policy and parliamentary rules.
   At the root of this dispute there was passive aggression: the majority didn’t want to deal with Many Rivers Montessori, so they were going to make everyone suffer a bit by doing things the hard way. They also use these situations as a form of blackmail: “If you don’t want cobwebs growing on your precious public, shut your mouths and let us speed train through the rest of this.”
The agenda wasn’t just a brief list of “repeat stuff.” Chair Harala herself used the word “robust” in describing it. Why pull a power trip and engender more sparks of boardroom strife, especially with a delegation from another educational organization sitting there, watching?
   Many Rivers was represented at the meeting by two gentlemen, who did eventually speak. The Head of School, Mark Neidermier, said Many Rivers is “seeking additional space (because) we don’t have a gym, we don’t have a library–we have classrooms, but we don’t have a lot of those support spaces that students benefit from…” While searching about for more suitable accommodations, he said his school “couldn’t help but become aware that there were some surplus ISD 709 buildings.”
Mr. Neidermier pointed out that his school is a licensed childcare provider, that many of its students range in age from toddler to three years old, and that only 48 of its current students would be eligible to attend ISD 709.
   Like the nice folks at Edison Charter, the nice folks from Many Rivers made it clear they intended to find a new educational home in Duluth; they weren’t going to disappear if ISD 709 decides not to take their money.
The Chair of Many Rivers’ private Board, John Kliewer, told our public Board: “If your policy prevents you from selling to us, the costs are pretty clear. You’ll forgo the purchase price, the money we would pay for your surplus schools…You’ll have the continued caring costs on these facilities–the maintenance, the heating of them in the winter, the costs of keeping the properties valuable over time…
   Not only are there additional financial costs,” Mr. Kliewer continued, “I think there are some community costs to consider. Your policy is – let us say–controversial in the community…it’s created a division within our community…”
I don’t know where he got that idea.