Since I had to be in Richmond City Hall last Monday to pay our real estate taxes, I dropped by the School Board meeting on the 17th-floor to witness some of our tax dollars in action. As I sat there at a "school board work session," I understood how poor Alice must have felt when she fell down the Rabbit-hole and kerplopped smack-dab into the middle of the Mad Hatter's Tea Party.
Although the meeting started at 4 p.m.-- a time when most people are either still at work or chauffering children about -- it seemed for one brief shining moment that the Board chair, Kimberly Bridges might have the good sense and business etiquette to allow Internal Auditor Debora R. Johns to present the "Audit Report and Review of the Capital Improvement Process" without interruption, prior to answering questions from board members.
But once Bridges (despite having just asked that board members save their questions for the end) interrupted Johns to ask her own question, the meeting soon degenerated into a free-for-all of nonsensical disorder, replete with the chair, board members and even the Superintendent all talking at the same time and doing their utmost to prevent board member, Kim B. Gray (2nd District), from managing to ask any coherent questions, much less get any honest answers.
Gray was clearly in no mood to play. She has relentlessly tried for the past year to get her colleagues and RPS Superintendent Yvonne Brandon to adhere to School Board Policy 3-3.4:
"Capital expenditure contracts shall be approved by the School Board. The division Superintendent or his/her designee shall execute such contracts upon School Board approval."
More's the pity then that Gray's colleagues and Brandon were so emotionally invested in venting their anger and frustration with Gray for standing her ground that they apparently preferred to interrupt (repeatedly) and speak to her in those twitchy, frosty tones women use when speaking with disobedient children and recalcitrant males.
Rather than simply pause a moment and ask Internal Auditor Johns why it was her professional opinion to recommend that the School Board comply with School Board Policy 3-3.4 or, much less, deign to discuss any of the other significant findings and recommendations of the audit, Bridges and her clique did their best to personalize their dispute and distract Gray from the matter at hand.
At first, several board members, including chairman Bridges, claimed the policy had been changed. But, when Gray challenged the chair and the Superintendent to produce the documentation and approvals required for such a policy change, Bridges demurred and said the board had decided by "consensus" to change the policy. Brandon then chimed in and said the matter had been discussed in closed session and that the board not only changed the policy "by consensus," but assured her that she didn't need to honor the board's policy.
Reminiscent of the "Mad Hatter," Bridges nodded her head and said, "Right."
Brandon, sounding very much like the "Queen of Hearts," and using similar logic, intoned: "There was no attempt to blatantly not follow the policy."
Exasperated, Gray sharply responded: "If there was a consensus, there should have been a vote."
P. Andy Hawkins, RPS Chief of Finance and Operations spoke up and tried to help matters by explaining that to bring the contracts forward for board approval would be very "inconvenient" for the administration. Apparently the administration experiences no such "inconvenience" when it comes to spending more than a quarter billion dollars a year. Hawkins assured the board that he was working with the plant services and facilities management on major reorganization efforts. Plant Services director Andrew Davis simply shrugged his shoulders and said he was "not aware" that the policy existed at all.
The solution 5th District Board member Maurice Henderson proffered for this problem was simple: "We just need to change the policy" so that it is consistent with the current practice of having the superintendent present a list once a month saying what contracts had been signed.
Gray's response was more weary here than critical as she attempted to explain that changing the policy would be essentially to "lower the bar of expectations and [it] would ignore the fact that School Board policy had been violated." Still, Board members Adria Graham Scott and Chandrah Smith agreed with Henderson. "What we've been doing is successful," noted Scott.
"How do we know what other policies and laws are being violated?" Gray asked. "Do we get to pick the laws we like and ignore the ones we don't?"
At this point (and I swear I am not making this up) board members Chandra Smith (6th District) and Dawn Page (8th District) actually took turns loudly accusing Gray of "being disrespectful" to the Superintendent.
Gray immediately rebuked them. "This board and superintendent are being disrespectful to the children, families, teachers and taxpayers of the City of Richmond." She added that the board's failure to hold the superintendent accountable was "a dereliction of duty and oaths of office."
After the work session recessed and the board reconvened in City Council Chambers, Gray asked for more information about Superintendent Yvonne Brandon’s earlier reference to a closed meeting that took place months earlier. According to Brandon, it was during that meeting that the School Board allegedly allowed her to sidestep the rules that require the school board to vote on all capital improvement contracts.
As Gray asked for clarity, Bridges was quick to try to shut down the question: “I’m being advised that we’re not to discuss a closed session meeting.”
Never mind that it’d already been discussed -- by the superintendent no less -- in open session in front of an array of reporters and bloggers.
Gray’s rejoinder was quick and directed to the School Board's lawyer, Nicole Thompson, from the law firm of Harrell & Chambliss: “Are policy discussions allowed in closed session?”
The meaning of the question was clear. If the board had made the change that Brandon claimed -- and that Bridges had affirmed -- then they may have violated the state’s open meeting laws. It seemed a perfect time for the Harrell Chambliss attorney to hop in and sort things out. And, she seemed to start out on fairly firm footing:
“If it has to do with one of the aspects that are allowed in closed session,” she said.
Gray wasn't letting it go: “What exemption would this policy... fall under?”
At this point, Thompson floundered: “If it has to do with legal, it could have to do with that. … it would depend on whatever contract you are speaking of. Depending on what the contract is, it can be discussed in closed. In general, if something is discussed in closed, it is supposed to stay in closed.”
Too bad the matter discussed in closed session did not have a thing to do with any specific contract, but rather with general policy.
By the end of the evening, I wanted to get my money back. Seriously.
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