June 13, 2012 10:38:05 AM
There were a few awkward moments during Monday's Columbus Municipal School District Board of Trustees meeting. Most of them involved Jason Spears, who is in his first year as a board member.
It was one of those uncomfortable moments that all of us have witnessed at one time or another: A newcomer who knows too little says too much. The room falls into an uncomfortable silence. People become suddenly fascinated with their shoes because they simply cannot stop staring at them. Somebody clears his throat and a brave soul timidly attempts to steer the conversation in another direction by saying, "Uh, how about this weather we're having?''
"Poor thing,'' one whispers to her neighbor. "He just doesn't know any better.''
In the end, no harm was done. The Board was able to complete its business without the tedious ordeal of having to feign interest in whatever the public might have to say on the matter. Parents and teachers can be so very annoying, after all.
Still, the Board must have left Monday's meeting realizing that Mr. Spears has a lot to learn about public servitude (not to be confused with public service, which is done in another department, apparently).
The Board certainly deserves credit for handling Mr. Spears' outbursts with restraint. It could not have been easy for them.
There was no way to have anticipated Mr. Spears' conduct because the Board was simply conducting its business in the usual way. The matter at hand involved a proposal from the new superintendent, Dr. Martha Liddell, to release students early each Wednesday to allow teachers to attend professional development and training sessions. To make up for the lost class times, students would stay 45 minutes later on the other school days.
Board member Currie Fisher made a motion to adopt the proposal, a motion that was met with the sound of crickets chirping. With no second to the motion, the Board could not vote on the proposal. The Board later went into executive session and the public went home.
The Board returned and board member Aubra Turner made a motion to adopt the early-release proposal. Fisher seconded the motion. Turner, Fisher and Board President Tommy Prude voted for the motion. Glenn Lautzenhiser spoke forcefully against a vote and then, quite naturally, excused himself from the unpleasant business of actually voting one way or another.
That left Spears. He voted no.
It wasn't so much that he was against the proposal, he said. In fact, he didn't really state his position. As best as can be determined, Spears objected to the manner in which the proposal came to a vote.
"We can't backtrack,'' he said. "We can't not do something when the parents are here and then backpedal and do something else. This is not fair.''
"This is the same type of clandestine activities we should not be a part of,'' he said. "This board cannot continue to do things in this manner.''
How charmingly innocent!
At that point, it would have been nice if someone, perhaps Mr. Prude, could have taken Mr. Spears aside and gently explained how things work in the real world. " Listen, Mr. Spears. This august body is well aware of the difference between a regular outrage and an outrage we can get away with. You would do well to hold your tongue.''
Much after the fact, Dr. Liddell explained the "misunderstanding'' to teachers, parents and other lesser beings in an email. Dr. Liddell seems to do her best work after the fact.
It is obvious that the Board did not discuss the proposal during the executive session, which would be illegal.
Fortunately, Dr. Liddell was able to explain how the Board could decide not to vote on the proposal and then, without any discussion at all, decide to vote on it a minute or so after coming out of executive session. Dr. Liddell said that she had provided additional information to the Board that altered their view on the matter. How she did this in the time frame allotted is unclear. Perhaps she did it telepathically. Superior beings can do that, you know.
So in the end there was no harm, no foul. Mr. Spears will learn, certainly.
One of the things he will learn is efficiency. After all, why bother listening to the public and then ignoring them when you can just ignore them from the get-go and spare everyone all that incessant jabbering?
And Mr. Spears can help move things along by speaking only when spoken to.
Mr. Prude, by virtue of his highly exalted status, was gracious enough to point this out to his inexperienced underling.
"Every one of us will have the opportunity to be president of the board,'' Prude said, suggesting that is some sort of egalitarian ethos among the gods. "But until then, only the president shall speak for the board.''
Prude didn't even toss lightning bolts around the room or anything. Perhaps he should have, for Mr. Spears did not seem entirely convinced.
Spears seems to still be wondering who speaks for the public when the public isn't permitted to speak for itself.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.