Richmond School Board Assaults Taxpayers and U.S. Constitution

Given the excesses of the AIG executive bonuses and the soiling of the U.S. Constitution after the eight long years of the Bush/Cheney Administration, I suppose I should not have been shocked by the most recent actions of the Richmond School Board. But, I was.

The news that in one single night, members of the Richmond School Board managed to approve a budget of more than a quarter-BILLION dollars without even a line-item budget, and then unanimously voted to impose a GAG rule upon themselves, is evidence, perhaps, that the greater illness afflicting this nation -- arrogance and ignorance fevered by the greed of privileged people --has infected local elected officials. (Some will certainly note that many elected officials in the City of Richmond have long been carriers of the contagion).

First, the matter of the budget. I can appreciate that the district has not had a full-time CFO/COO for more than a year. Surely, the 26 business/community leaders who signed the now infamous letter calling for an appointed vs. elected school board, could help the district find a most-needed CFO. I urge the Superintendent to reach out to them for this help.

I am certain that the members of this board, Dr. Brandon and chief legal counsel, Brad King, are all individuals who would no balk if a teacher at any of the 52 schools in the system walked up to them and asked for $261 to be used in the performance of their job, without specific details as to precisely how the money would be spent.

Imagine the eye-rolling and hand-wringing that would ensue if a teacher dared to submit a reimbursement request for $261, without the requisite documentation. And, if the teacher had the nerve to suggest that the money should be handed over sans documentation because requesting such verification was simply "micro-managing" and distrustful, chances are the teacher could end up unemployed, or at the very least referred for counseling.

Only vice-chair Kimberly Gray (2nd) and finance committee chair, Dawn Page (8th), demonstrated the common sense to vote against this budget and in so doing struck a blow for accountability. Would that their votes could serve to remind their colleagues that they were elected to represent the taxpayers and citizens of this city, not RPS administrators or their friends in City Hall.

Those who approved the $261.7 million request-- without the benefit of a line-item budget -- included Kim Bridges (1st), Norma Murdoch-Kitt (3rd), Betsy Carr (5th), Chandrah Smith (6th), Don Coleman (7th) and Evette Wilson (9th). All justified their actions by pontificating about the need to "trust" the Superintendent and how wanting a line-item budget was both just too much to ask and evidence of a desire to "micro-manage." Pity poor Adria Graham-Scott (4th) who abstained.

And, now, concerning the matter of the GAG Rule. As incredible and unconscionable as was the passing of a budget without the same degree of detail that the Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico County Board of Supervisors insist their School Boards deliver, the RPS board's other significant action of the night -- unanimously passing the "Communications Protocol" -- was a direct assault on the U.S. Constitution and is far more disturbing.

Perhaps, they just don't know any better -- or worse, their lawyer doesn't. Mayhaps, the board never bothered to ask the lawyers to render an opinion. Incidentally, the board voted to give a hefty 61 percent pay increase in the newly-approved budget.

While this "Communications Protocol" policy was motivated by high-minded goals, certain provisions of it clearly violate the Constitutional right to free speech.

Board members have pledged "fidelity" to the idea that they will "support the decisions of the majority of the board once a decision is made," meaning that they have agreed that they will not criticize a decision -- in public, or in the media -- once a decision has been made.

Should a dissenting board member decide to break the pledge of "fidelity" to this principle, the "Communications Protocol" promises they will be held accountable by fellow board members, the Superintendent and, significantly, "the district's chief legal counsel."

Talk about creating a "chilling effect." While wrapping itself in some "pretty words" about respect and civility, what this policy really does is attempt to legally sanction actions on the part of the board to squash the First Amendment rights and responsibilities of any colleague who disagrees with the majority and who refuses to be beaten into silence.

The Yvonne Brandon I have known for the past six years is an excellent and throughly professional educator quite capable of doing the job she was hired to do.

Pity the board that thinks she needs them to protect her from criticism. I believe she does want change and has the skills to bring it about. Unfortunately, she has some board members who believe the answer to criticism is to silence the dissenters. This is not about Dr. Brandon. This policy is a blatant effort by the board to codify their own past bad behavior. It is also a revealing glimpse of the lengths some members will go to bully their colleagues and silence their critics.

Unfortunately, the "district's chief legal counsel" is a party to this legal mish-mash and really should have known better. Implicit in the statement that the "district's chief legal counsel" will hold violators of this policy accountable is the not too subtle threat of legal action.

From the U.S. Supreme Court to local courts all across this nation, decisions abound affirming the right of free speech. According to one court decision from Virginia Beach: "Debate over public issues, including the qualifications and performance of public officials (such as a school superintendent), lies at the heart of the First Amendment." That decision states that the First Amendment "protects the ability to question and challenge the fitness of the community leaders, including administrative leaders in a school system."

Further, the courts have consistently rejected attempts to curtail the rights of elected officials to speak to the issues, including qualifications, integrity and job performance of other officials. Not only does the First Amendment trump documents such as this "Communications Protocol," but in one decision (Parker v. Merlino), the court explicitly states that elected officials may not "be punished or restricted for making public statements that the majority found offensive."

Regardless of whether these board members wish to understand their legal rights and responsibilities, the courts have consistently held that individuals do not surrender their free speech rights when they become elected officials. Nor, can any arm of the government impose greater restrictions on elected officials than on the general public.

As the U.S. Supreme Court has noted:

"The central commitment of the First Amendment ....is that 'debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide-open.' .... Legislators have an obligation to take positions on controversial political questions so that their constituents can be fully informed by them, and be better able to assess their qualifications for office; also so they may be represented in governmental debates by the person they have elected to represent them."

And, if the above is just too much for the School members or their legal counsel to wrap their heads around, perhaps the Ancient Code of Mothers can inform. As in, "I don't care if all your friends are __________, I expect you to know the difference between right and wrong and say something to someone to stop them."

So, Mom, I am trying. But, I need members of the community to speak out as well. If this board doesn't wise up and remember it is supposed to serve the people, it is the duty of the people to make their displeasure known. As I have said before, dissent is as American as the 4th of July and as necessary to freedom and Democracy as the air we breathe.