No summer break in school board discord
Greens and Dems snipe over board rules
By Chris Busby
Portland public school students are on vacation this summer, but there’s been no break in the partisan bickering that’s plagued the Portland School Committee for much of the past year. Though the nine-member school committee is, officially, a non-partisan board, the five members registered to vote as Democrats and four Green Independent Party members have been sniping at one another like Democrats and Republicans in Congress.
The latest flare-up was ignited by Green board member Ben Meiklejohn, who’s running for the state legislature this fall. On July 31, Meiklejohn announced that the four Greens on the board (Stephen Spring, Jason Toothaker, Susan Hopkins and himself) would be meeting at the fountain in Lincoln Park on Aug. 3 to discuss the possibility of reducing school administrative staff.
Assistant superintendent Dana Allen had recently announced his resignation, and Meiklejohn said he thought this presented a good opportunity to cut administrative costs by leaving Allen’s position unfilled. In addition, Meiklejohn and Spring expressed concern early last week that the administration would begin a search for Allen’s replacement immediately, and bring forward a candidate for the job before the board had a chance to debate whether or not the position should be filled.
But Meiklejohn also had another motive. The meeting in the park was intended to challenge the belief, held by some board Democrats, that it is illegal for three or more board members to meet and discuss school-related matters outside official meetings.
Last fall, the four Greens introduced a new initiative called the Class of 2023, a project to ensure every student has an opportunity to graduate from college. Some board Dems alleged the Greens had met as a group outside any formal board meeting to craft the proposal, in violation of board rules and state law.
The Greens deny this, saying they communicated one-on-one about the Class of 2023 proposal, but Meiklejohn has since come to believe that even if they had met as a group, such discussions are legal. Opinions to the contrary are like “a looming cloud over us that’s very suppressive of us interacting… and exercising our right to free speech,” he said.
The Greens’ concern about Allen’s position was largely assuaged at the full school board’s formal meeting on Aug. 2, when Superintendent Mary Jo O’Connor announced the assistant superintendent job would not be filled before school starts again this fall. O’Connor and other top administrators will take on Allen’s duties, and the job shuffling will result in a reduction of one-half of a salaried position this year, saving about $60,000 in pay and benefits, according to administrators. Meanwhile, a board-initiated “efficiency study” of the schools’ administration will be conducted in hopes of identifying further savings, said School Committee Chairwoman Ellen Alcorn.
During an Aug. 1 interview with The Bollard, Alcorn said she was mystified as to why the Greens felt a need to meet outside the normal schedule of official board meetings. “It seems there’s an implication that some of us care more about administrative efficiencies [than others],” she said. “If that is the perception, I would take issue with that.
“We just need to have some better accountability in place,” Alcorn continued. “We need to stop functioning in the realm of political rhetoric [and gather] more data about decisions.”
Functioning in the realm of political rhetoric
The three Green board members who showed up at the park last Thursday afternoon – Meiklejohn, Spring and Toothaker – talked casually about the preceding evening’s developments, expressing satisfaction that savings would result from administrative restructuring this year and hope that further savings will be found following additional study.
No votes were taken during the 20-minute gathering, which was attended by this reporter and city government watchdog Steven Scharf, an occasional opinion columnist for The West End News. Spring said he hopes to make the meetings in the park a regular, biweekly event during which board members of either political party and members of the public can discuss school matters in a relaxed atmosphere.
Although Meiklejohn does not believe it is necessary to formally notify the public when three or more board members gather to informally discuss school business, notice of the meeting was sent to all eight of his fellow board members, media outlets that regularly cover school matters (The Bollard, The Forecaster and The West End News) and Superintendent O’Connor. Alcorn and O’Connor were asked to pass notice of the meeting along to media on the schools’ list of press contacts.
The Aug. 3 meeting was not posted on the school department’s online schedule of committee meetings, and it seems notice of the meeting in the park was not forwarded to media on the schools’ press list.
In an Aug. 5 article in the Portland Press Herald, Alcorn told reporter Beth Quimby she decided not to forward notice of the meeting to media on the press list because only the chair of the board has authority to schedule school committee meetings. Instead, Alcorn told Quimby, she contacted Portland Democratic Party Chairwoman Sive Neilan, and Neilan “then sent off several e-mails to city officials in protest,” according to the article.
Though Quimby’s article asserts that the Greens’ Aug. 3 meeting “is drawing criticism from colleagues and constituents,” no board colleagues other than Alcorn are quoted or referenced in the article, and no constituents, other than Neilan, are quoted or referenced.
The daily also failed to mention a notable board dispute, aired in public at the Aug. 2 meeting, in which Alcorn was accused of violating board rules and state open-meeting laws. (Quimby did not attend the Aug. 2 meeting.)
On June 21, Alcorn, Hopkins and school board members John Coyne and Jonathan Radtke met to discuss contract negotiations with the teachers’ union and a union representing administrative employees. No other school board members were able to attend that meeting in person.
As is common practice when union contracts are being negotiated, those present moved to have the discussion in a private “executive session.” However, the group of four officials did not constitute the quorum of five members necessary to hold the closed-door meeting. Rather than cancel the meeting, board member Otis Thompson was contacted by phone, and Thompson participated in the private meeting, which lasted 12 minutes, via phone.
“This isn’t Who Wants to Be a Millionaire where the chair gets to use one of her Lifelines to call her ‘Special Friend,'” Spring wrote in a July 11 e-mail to The Bollard. “This is government; when it comes to negotiating the teachers contract, [Alcorn] needs to follow the law, not to mention basic democratic principles.”
Meiklejohn said he could have participated in that meeting by phone, but was not called. “I’m disappointed I wasn’t given equal opportunity as a colleague to participate,” he said. The practice of calling select school board members “gives some members more access than others, and we’re all supposed to be equal.”
“In retrospect, [calling Thompson] was probably not the right thing to do,” Alcorn said in an interview with The Bollard. “Live and learn.” Alcorn apologized for the incident at the Aug. 2 board meeting, and the full board went back into executive session that evening to discuss the contract negotiations again.
The school board’s legal counsel, Harry Pringle, told members at the Aug. 2 meeting that courts across the country are “split” on the question of public officials participating in meetings via phone. Pringle said case law in Maine doesn’t provide a solid precedent, but added, “I don’t think you have a valid quorum unless there are five bodies” physically present at a meeting.
In a follow-up interview with The Bollard, Pringle said if such an issue were brought before a court in Maine, he predicts the court would cite the “long tradition in this state of officials being present at meetings,” and reject teleconferencing at public meetings unless state lawmakers specifically approve that type of communication.
Pringle also said Maine law doesn’t set a clear precedent regarding the legality of three or more board members getting together for informal discussion of public business – though board meetings are regulated by the charter and policies of the board itself.
Such informal gatherings could become “problematic” if enough members gather to form a quorum or nearly a quorum, make decisions, and then “get together and ratify” those decisions at an official public meeting, Pringle said. But a gathering like the Aug. 3 meeting in the park is not, “on its face,” illegal, and would not necessarily require public notice.
“You can draw your own conclusion whether that’s a good way for a public body to make decisions,” Pringle added.