Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Board Members Getting on Each Other's Last Nerve

One of the really fantastic things about the current ridiculously large, dysfunctional Shelby County School Board is that it is really diverse.  You've got millionaires millionaire millionaires and retired teachers.  You've got folks who only leave their municipalities (or neighborhoods) to come to the board meetings, and folks that don't have to buy groceries because they go to so many nighttime events.  You've got earnest up-and-comers and some - well, you get the idea.

But we knew that this could not be all rainbows and sunshine, right?  Not only did we not really expect all of these folks to get along, but actually, for the purposes of good government, we don't actually want them to all agree with each other all of the time.  I'm not saying we need some more "Days of Our Lives" drama, but we should have robust discussion on these critical issues - where the real philosophical disagreements are publicly aired and pushed against each other.

When this happens, we really get to know who our publicly elected representatives are and we find out how we really feel about them.  The most important part is that we find where we agree and disagree with them on policy matters, so that we can figure out where our collective dealbreakers are, and vote accordingly.  For instance, last week we found out that Commissioner David Reaves believes that public school discipline should continue to be based on principles of the Old and New Testament.  Let's hope he hasn't read Leviticus.  And however this Martavius Jones resolution against David Pickler goes, the conversation about the nexus between public dollars and private business as it relates to Board commissioners is an important one.

We're now a year in to this Board, give or take a couple of members losing an election, and a couple of new appointments.  But we're starting to see more and more soapy moments.  I intended that as another "Young and the Restless" reference, but folks are getting themselves worked into a lather.

I've mentioned before that Commissioner Chris Caldwell can overstate his position.  During a recent discussion on employee benefits related to increasing the employee's share of the premium for both current and retired employees, Commissioner Caldwell sympathized with the district staff making the presentation who, admittedly, stood at the podium for over an hour while Commissioners discussed the efficacy of the staff proposal.  But he didn't just sympathize with them.  He thought his colleagues on the Board had engaged in public discussion of this (critical, very important) proposal for far too long.  So his proposal was that when Board commissioners disagree with the staff proposals, they should stand up for as long as it takes to discuss the proposal, just like the staff members.  Commissioner Sara Lewis, who had several questions and comments about the proposal, did not take this as a friendly suggestion.  Commissioner Lewis asked Chairman Billy Orgel if commissioners were permitted to chastise each other.  Commissioner Caldwell found himself in the awkward position the following week of feeling, upon reflection, that perhaps he had overstepped and he apologized to his colleagues.  But with that kind of proposal, it's hard to say who got on whose last nerve first.

And Commissioner Caldwell is not the only commissioner to throw some shade on Commissioner Martavius Jones with a little dramatic side comment.  At last week's meeting, Commissioner Caldwell moved to appoint MCS General Counsel Dorsey Hopson as the interim superintendent.  This took several commissioners by surprise, and Commissioner Jones moved to substitute Dr. Roderick Richmond as the interim superintendent.  As part of that discussion, Commissioner Kevin Woods told Commissioner Jones to "stop dividing this Board."  It is unclear who Commissioner Woods was sticking up for in this situation - Dorsey Hopson was an unconventional choice, and it would seem likely that more than one person would be considered for the interim position.  But perhaps it wasn't enough to disagree, perhaps it was more important to question a person's motives and accuse them of willful division for the sake of division.  How very "Santa Barbara."

Now these are all grown-ups.  I'm not all that worried about Sara Lewis' and Martavius Jones' self esteem and ability to withstand a little criticism.  But it's worth noting who is making things personal - or at least overly dramatic - and who is not. 

I understand that some could argue that Commissioner Jones has made things very personal with Commissioner David Pickler.  But I think most of that has to do with their tortured history, and not the actual allegations.  As I've argued before, if any Commissioner became aware of this kind of situation with any other Commissioner, I would hope the Commissioner who became aware of it would raise the issue for public resolution.  Because they have an obligation to do so.  We can disagree on the surprise motion, but Commissioner Jones didn't try to undermine Commissioner Pickler by spreading rumors - he kept it public, as it should be.  We'll see what happens in the Ethics Committee.  It's also worth noting that what we don't see with these two is public sniping and snide comments - they both pretty much point to the intense papers they've submitted.

We can all agree that this is all breathlessly dramatic, no?  Whether it's a farce or a Greek tragedy or an afternoon soap opera, Chairman Orgel has decided that the Board needs to meet more often in preparation for the merger.  If these folks aren't already getting on each other's last nerve, they will soon.

But maybe it will be like last night's "Budget" community session, where only 11 of the 23 Commissioners bothered to show up to listen to public comments in person.  With such dismally low attendance, it should be easier to get along.  Well, that, and the fact that none of the Board commissioners were allowed to talk.

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