A school board workshop broke down this week over disagreements on proposed changes to the operating manual for the board. While the proposed manual seems reasonable enough at first glance, board members and community activists have plenty of history informing their apprehensions.
The most controversial portion is related to the communication policy (which can be viewed here on page 13-16) and efforts to set reasonable limits on information requests by board members. Obviously the district is a massive institution that produces endless reams of data. Casting a wide net when requesting information certainly has the potential to require the dedication of considerable resources.
Without constraints, a disgruntled board member certainly could make it difficult on an administration were they to demand massive volumes of information on a regular basis, and employee resources – already strained by a drum-tight budget – were too often diverted to satisfy them.
That seems to be the thinking in the portion of the policy that says that if the requested information is not available from existing materials and would require that a special report be created, more than an hour of staff time is involved and/or expenditures are required (all to be determined by the superintendent), the item will instead be placed on the agenda of the next meeting or workshop and require a majority vote to determine that it is necessary to produce.
Those familiar with the district's recent past have good reason to see some red flags, however. Under Superintendent Tim McGonegal, a minority of the board members were consistently marginalized by the administration and its three reliable allies on the board.
The administration also employed a very questionable interpretation of provisions in the Florida sunshine statutes to discourage other records requests in which the information contained would be inconvenient were it made public. In such instances, the district would routinely determine that fulfilling the request would require excessive resources, (questionably) allowing them to ask the citizen for a hefty “deposit” toward the cost, prior to any requested information being compiled.
As we now know, that administration had very good reason to keep a whole lot of information from public disclosure, be it to the board or average citizens. It was running a multimillion dollar shell game that would not have stood up to detailed analysis. The fact that board members and citizens who were working hardest to expose the financial nightmare were too often thwarted by communication policies that existed to subvert transparency is undoubtedly at the root of the current backlash.
Like many of Florida's well-intentioned laws, sunshine statutes seem to have been enacted before the actual implementation had been considered. As is nearly always the case, they became an unfunded burden on state and local governments who were required to achieve compliance with existing staff and resources – an unfunded mandate, as it's known. Yet as we saw here in Manatee, efforts to offset that burden by allowing “reasonable” costs to be recouped were quickly abused by the very sort of public officials that the laws were enacted to thwart in the first place.
When it comes to a board member, their ability to access information in order to make informed decisions is paramount, as we painfully learned when that information was deliberately withheld in the past. As I said, I can understand the administration's desire to put in place reasonable parameters in terms of ensuring that they don't have staff routinely diverted from their responsibilities. After all, it's the administration that's ultimately responsible for all necessary work being done and it's not fair to monopolize the resources that are required to achieve results elsewhere. Nevertheless, all I have to do is imagine the policy having been in place during the McGonegal era and I see why some people are concerned. Had that administration simply needed three votes from the board to marginalize a combative board member or two, it could have banked on them just about any old time.
Someone would have asked for data, the administration would have said it would take too much time to produce, the board chair would have put it on the agenda and a majority would have voted it down as a waste of time, while likely scolding those other board members for “micromanaging” rather than “supporting” the superintendent. The fact that said request wouldn't even be heard until the next meeting, might also serve to render the requested info moot, were it related to something they were about to vote on.
Again, none of that means that a board member isn't capable of being unreasonable or that common sense policies can't be enacted in order to prevent one from being able to single-handedly burden the bureaucracy with enough requests to warrant additional employees or bog down everything that needs to get done in other areas.
Still, it is the board members who are ultimately accountable to the taxpayers and if we are going to err, it should be on the side of transparency. While Superintendent Mills has maintained an open-door policy to employees and the public from day one, in the end, it's only a citizen's representative on the board from whom they can demand remedy by way of their vote. They shouldn't ever be in a position to hear, “I'd like to help you with that, but I haven't been able to get the information myself, because I don't have the votes.”
I don't think that is the intent of the proposed policy, and I'm not suggesting anyone is planning on using it that way. But good policy isn't designed with specific people in mind or under the assumption that anyone is guided by the best of intentions. Rather, it's usually arrived at by way of imagining worst case scenarios.
There were also some other policies regarding communicating with the public and media that seemed to invoke the same, this board should always be united mantra that was too often used pejoratively when dissenting members were clamoring for much-needed reform during the previous administration. Dissent is often the most useful tool in good government, as it can bring to light issues or concerns that might otherwise go unconsidered. The previous board (which only had one different member), was often chastised for a lack of 5-0 votes.
Again, if the only time a board member speaks out is when they are in the majority, one then has to wonder why we even need a board in the first place. Board members agreed to scrap that portion, while also raising some valid concerns about a potentially-broad rule that would limit workshops to non-administrative issues. They didn't get through the entire manual during Tuesday's work session, so it would seem likely there will be another one before it comes up for a vote.
It can probably be said that the administration created a reasonable, if imperfect draft that addressed things from its perspective. It shouldn't be a surprise if some board members see it differently from theirs. In the end, a sensible policy should be able to be enacted which does not open the door for abuse by this or another administration, nor a simple majority on a board that can change every two years. I think this one needs a little fine tuning, before that is the case.
Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at email@example.com. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.
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