Exposing the Warts

The honorable research scientist, Dr. Glass, made a reappearance in the boardroom of ISD 709, to observe the spectacle of the September school board meeting. Afterwards, I asked him: “Felt like old times, Gary?” His reply: “Same as always, only worse.”
Welcome to your government. School board meeting: 9/16/14.
The evening’s drama began, right off the bat, with another a prickly tussle over the agenda. Chair Miernicki’s maneuverings around this ever-contentious opening volley will never garner him a nomination for the coveted Polished Politician Award, even in the school board world. After briskly making a motion to approve the agenda, and getting a second from one of his allies, Mr. Miernicki immediately used a maneuver referred to under parliamentary rules as “calling the question.” Calling the question chops off debate. The Chair’s intent--baldly evident to many in the audience--was to bull his way straight to a vote. 
Stepping in front of the charge, Member Welty played matador, by trying to call a point of order: “We had a long discussion about the agenda--”
Chair Miernicki cut him short: “Mr. Welty, I called the question, so the point of order would have to be about calling the question.”
Member Welty countered: “No, the question I have is: how does one go about placing items on the agenda? We were limited from doing this at the last meeting, and I would like to know under what parliamentary rule or under what bylaw the Chairman takes upon himself the sole authority to determine the agenda?”  
Mr. Miernicki dismissed the question with a crisp, “Thank you,” then announced: “All in favor of calling the question signify by saying ‘Aye.’” The Chair won the vote, 5-2, then tried again to go to a vote on approving the agenda.
Knock, knock!
Member Johnston has lately taken to sending the Chair audible signals, due to frequent faulty communication through the sense of sight. His light flashing, he rapped on the dais with his knuckles and was finally recognized.  He objected to the Chair calling a vote without discussion: “We have to have some discussion on it.”       
“Well, no--” The Chair argued, “when I call the question we go right to the motion.” 
“You are the Chairperson. You can’t call the question without letting anybody speak. That’s a violation of the rules. You called the question without allowing anybody to even have an opportunity to speak, and that is an improper procedure.”
 “No, it’s not.” The Chair disagreed.
 “Yes, it is.”           
“Ok, all right, go ahead.”
“I appeal the decision of the Chair.”
“Thank you,” The Chair replied genially, as though he’d been complimented. He completely ignored the appeal and recognized member Welty. 
“I guess I would ask what an appeal of the Chair leads to--a vote?” Mr. Welty asked. “An appeal of the Chair…I expect that requires a vote.” 
“It also requires a discussion.” Member Johnston added.
“All right,” the Chair conceded, “a discussion.”
By now, certainly not likely to be a pleasant one. Mr. Johnston was less than pleased with the Chair’s performance of his duties, which he referred to as a “normal, draconian effort by the Chair” to repress debate.
Johnston elaborated on his point by quoting an expert in parliamentary procedure: “The role of the Chair is not to ramrod the meeting to as quick an end as possible. The Chair should be the Board’s SERVANT; that word is capitalized. The Chair ensures everyone has equal access to all information, all members have equal rights, and the minority has a full opportunity to speak…”
What a lovely departure from reality! Of course, if they were actually treated this way, the minority members would likely just get spoiled. They’d probably start demanding vases of flowers on the dais. They’d probably make their manservant, Chair Miernicki, get all gussied up like that cranky head butler on Downton Abbey.
 As it was, member Welty addressed his SERVANT with an audacious tone, repeating a question he’d asked earlier: “Under what authority does the Chair act in such a way to deny the minority (its right) to get an item on the agenda?”
 Mr. Miernicki again acted as though all questions were rhetorical, requiring no response. He recognized the Board Clerk, Judy Seliga-Punkyo, who trotted out the same phrase she trots out nearly every meeting: all questions about the agenda have been, in her view, “asked and answered.”       
“Can we get an item on the agenda?” “No, you can’t.” “Can we get an item on the agenda?” “No, you can’t.” “Can we get an item…?”
That’s the only question that’s been asked and answered. WHY is the real stickler, forever asked and never answered. The path to some consensus on the agenda-setting process has been as contentious as the Israeli/Palestinian negotiations. The majority won this evening’s skirmish again--5 trumping 2--but suffered its usual casualty of tattered collegiality.
And the Chair, particularly, is feeling the stress.
Mr. Miernicki often remarks about how much he enjoys the Recognition Awards given out regularly during the meetings. The Chair clearly would love nothing more than to come into every meeting with a warm, avuncular smile, clap every person in sight on the back, give everyone gushing credit for doing a great job and hand out     awards.           
 This evening’s award was certainly deserved. The good citizens from CHUM collaborated with the district to make sure disadvantaged kids started the school year off on the right foot. Over the past few years, the organization has given out 7000 backpacks filled with school supplies. The praise given to all involved was well placed.
 It took twenty minutes for the scuffle over the agenda, and ten more for the award ceremony, but we finally made it to Public Comment.
Five citizens, myself excluded, stepped up to the podium to be heard. The first was a physical education teacher and local heroine, Linda Puglisi. Ms. Puglisi is the person who recently dove into the pool at Lincoln Park middle school and saved a student from drowning. Wretched by the experience, weeping a bit, she told the Board she has to watch 38 kids in the pool area and the whole situation is another accident waiting to happen. She pleaded for the district to hire lifeguards, but we spent all the money on the pools.
Nicole Johnson pleaded with the Board to hire more teachers to reduce the size of her child’s class at Lester Park elementary, but we spent all the money on the buildings.
A former Board member and retired banker, Richard Paulson, stepped up to lecture the Board about its unsustainable spending habits, particularly in regard to health care benefits.
The next speaker requested anonymity in this column. Many times people have agreed to speak frankly to me about the Red Plan and other district missteps only if I promise not to use their names. After this meeting was over, Gary Glass told me district employees used to dart their eyes and look furtively over their shoulders if he tried to talk to them in public. So, what gives? Is there some kind of Thought Readjustment Torture Chamber in the bowels of Old Central? If you associate with the wrong type, or say the wrong thing, will enforcers jump out of the shadows, growling in dreadful tones: “You come with us, now. The superintendent is waiting. Chant while you march: the Red Plan is good, the Red Plan is good, the Red Plan is good…”
The unnamed speaker said: “One thing that came out of the State Auditor’s engagement was that there were $84 million of soft costs related to the Red Plan. As a taxpaying citizen, I would like a discussion of this, to understand where all the money went. I realize you (the Board majority) keep saying, ‘Move on,’ but I really appreciate the fact that members Welty and Johnston are trying to get a discussion on this issue.”         
Dangerous words, very dangerous. Some thought readjustment may be necessary.
 The last citizen speaker, Marcia Stromgren, read an excerpt from an excellent Washington Post article, about the pitfalls of school districts teaching to Common Core Standards.
It could be so simple: just get along, go along and get out.
 Much of the drama during school board meetings is off-the-agenda. This meeting went on for nearly three hours and there were only a few actionable items in the committee reports. Just paging through the agenda, you’d swear the whole thing couldn’t be dragged out for more than an hour, hour-and-a-half, tops. The Board’s majority and administration would like nothing better. If they could just get rid of you-know-who!
Of course then we’d be left with really crappy government, nothing but a bunch of happy talk wrapped up in a big Red bow.
There were two significant agenda items acted on by the Board during this meeting. One was a decision to hire a demographics firm. The Board just ran up a bill of nearly half a billion to build schools supposedly adjusted to our town’s demographics. The plan has been fully implemented for one year. Within two more years, the district is predicting five of the nine elementary schools to be overcrowded. Our leaders are now going to pay a firm called RSP and Associates $42,000 more of our money to try to figure out a way to make the Red Mess work.
The Board also approved setting the tax levy at the maximum level. Every year in September the Board sets the levy at the maximum, calling its action “preliminary.” Every year they tell everyone they’re just being prudent and playing it safe. Every year they say setting the levy at the maximum level in September doesn’t mean they’re really going to tax everyone to the max. Every year, during the tax certification in December, they give us the most expensive Christmas gift they can give.
And you thought they might forget!
This meeting’s disorderly squabbles were so numerous, it would take two more pages to describe them all in detail. One notable flare-up occurred when member Harala stared down member Welty for several seconds, then asked pointedly, “When is all the grandstanding going to stop…?” Her scolding lecture caught everyone’s attention because Harala is not often confrontational.
“I’d like to have some of the grandstanding stopped, myself.” Member Johnston, jumping in, responded. “As I recall though, the Chair and the Superintendent have accused me publicly, as well as you, of assaulting them. You don’t call that grandstanding?” Sparks flew, but the person the lecture had been directed towards handled the situation with his usual professional aplomb. “Member Harala…” Mr. Welty said with warm sincerity, “I do apologize if it sounded like I was grandstanding…”
The conversation veered into the educational inequity that exists between East and West schools, and the achievement gap. Member Welty found the discussion to be a valuable exercise and requested more conversation in the future. “My concern as a school board member,” he said, “is that we are sometimes too afraid of talking about the warts and blemishes.” Board member Johnston, however, is no shrinking violet. He would wade dauntlessly into a leper colony. Referring to the achievement gap, he looked around and asked: “We can treat our minorities like dirt?”
Chair Miernicki did not take this comment well. He finally snapped, turning seriously angry. Protocol flew out the window as he pointed a finger then, demanded in his raspy baritone: “Who’s doing that? Name one person on this Board who’s treating minorities like dirt!…Which one of us is treating minorities like dirt?!”
By the time the gavel dropped, ending this meeting, I was ready to dash out into the cool autumn air. Shadows had crept into the corners of Old Central’s auditorium and I was keenly aware of how many hours I’d logged in the place over the years. The three hours I’d just witnessed were summed up succinctly by professor Glass’s cryptic observation.
Same as always, only worse.

Loren Martell has been involved in Public School District issues for several years. He wrote the Red Plan report for the State Auditor’s Office and ran for the School Board office.