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Curmudgeon's Corner: There are ways to fix the NK School Committee

July 19, 2011

On Independence Day I watched most of two installments on the birth of our nation on the History Channel. Frankly, I had forgotten how contentious and rancorous the relations were between the founding fathers. Were it not for the commanding personality of George Washington and the presence of intellectual giants such as Benjamin Franklin and James Madison, we would probably still be singing “God Save the Queen” as our national anthem.
Recent polls indicate that most Americans are unhappy with the political process and disgusted at the behavior of most politicians. They say they want their elected officials to “get along” and are fed up with partisan politics. That is, until those officials enact legislation with which those same voters disagree.
Suppose, for example, a majority of Democrats join the tiny Republican minority in the Rhode Island legislature and enact sweeping pension reform that raises the retirement age, eliminates cost of living adjustments and clamps down on lucrative long term disability pensions. Would teachers, state and municipal employees and their families be pleased that our elected representatives “got along” with one another?
Politics is, by nature, made up of conflict and compromise. A woman is reported to have asked Ben Franklin as he left the signing of the Constitution, “What have you given us?” The aged wise man replied, “A Republic if you can keep it.”
My dictionary defines Republic as “a political order whose head of state is not a monarch and in which the supreme power lies in a body of citizens entitled to vote for officers and representatives responsible to them”.
Two weeks ago a recent NKHS graduate, Marriah Binek, home after her first year in college, wrote a letter to this newspaper (“School Committee needs to stop acting like children”). Miss Binek opines, “People on the school committee should be working for the students in their care; they should not be there to protect the taxpayers or the senior citizens.”
Really? According to the definition above, it is the taxpayers and senior citizens who voted for them to whom the school committee is responsible–not the students in the school district.
Miss Binek does graciously allow that “[she doesn’t] think that a school committee member necessarily should have a student in the school system” and that “It is foolish to pour time and money into programs that no one cares about”. She doesn’t elaborate on just who is to decide which programs those are.
Miss Binek states, “The problems in the NK school district have nothing to do with taxpayers, parents, or the average citizen.” Just who, pray tell, does she think pays the $14,000+ average yearly cost to send a student to school in the district?
I agree with Miss Binek who is “horrified that certain school committee members cannot move beyond their own agendas and feelings” and that “preparing our youth for the challenges of the workplace...is more important than petty disputes, suspicion, wounded pride because not every idea one comes up with is immediately lauded as brilliant”.
At its last meeting before the July hiatus the school committee elected two-term member Kim Page as its presiding officer, replacing Dick Welch, who surrendered the chair.
Hopefully, Mrs. Page, an attorney by profession, who seems to try to be respectful to all committee members can bring order to its proceedings. To that end I will be presumptuous enough to offer some suggestions.
After consulting my Webster’s New World “Robert’s Rules of Order” and “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Roberts Rules”, I believe school committee meetings can be more productive and less contentious if:
n No debate or discussion takes place until a motion has been made, seconded and restated by the chairperson. All too often long-winded and oftentimes tortuous discussion takes place before someone cobbles together a motion which is then debated some more and frequently amended.
n A member making a motion is responsible for writing it out after it has been seconded and handing to the chairperson who then states it for the record. It should not be the responsibility of the chair or secretary to put the motion into writing. If there is no second, there is no need for discussion.
n When a member requests that an item be removed from the consent agenda, the chairperson should ask for a second. If there is none, the item remains on the consent agenda. If there is a second the item should be debated and voted on promptly instead of the present practice in which all exemptions are listed and then discussed one by one often without a motion being made or seconded.
n During debate, each member may speak only twice, each time for no more than five minutes. After the first time the member must wait until all other members wishing to speak on the motion do so before taking the floor a second time. Presently, some members feel obligated to respond every time another speaker disagrees with or challenges something he or she has said.
n Remarks and questions should be addressed to the chairperson. If the chairperson does not know the answer, she or he may direct another member or person in attendance who does know to provide the answer. Any accusations or attacks of a personal nature should be immediately ruled out of order.
n To really move things along, the chairperson should alternate between those favoring and those opposing a motion. This balances the debate and can shorten it. For example, say Member A makes a motion which is seconded by Member B. Member A then speaks in favor of the motion (under Robert’s Rules he cannot speak against it). Mrs. Page then asks if anyone wishes to speak against the motion and recognizes Member C. After C speaks she asks if anyone else wishes to speak in favor of the motion. If no one else wants to speak in favor (the member making or seconding a motion need not vote for it) it is obvious that the motion will fail and there is no need for further debate. The chairperson can call for a vote. See how easy it can be?
School committee agendas are usually impossibly long. I suggest that adopting these recommendations will move the proceedings along in an orderly manner.

Richard August is a North Kingstown resident and a regular contributor to the Standard Times. His opinions are his own. He can be reached at richardjaugust@yahoo.com.

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