In an action that surprised most observers, School Committee Chairman Patricia Woodruff announced her resignation from the School Committee during tonight’s meeting.
Reading from a prepared statement during the Chairwoman’s Announcement segment of the meeting, she said; “It appears to me the politics of the school committee have overtaken the true mission of this committee. There seems to be a prevailing opinion of the current majority of the school committee that this would be cured by my absence. While I do not share this opinion, I feel it is only fair to our children, who should be the true focus of our actions, to allow the majority to have their way. I therefore resign from the committee to be effective at the conclusion of this meeting. I hope that this gesture will encourage the remaining members to focus on what is important, the youth of our community.”
I would have added, “…rather than your personal ambitions.” Nevertheless, I applaud her courage. She can no doubt expect a relentless barrage of criticism from her tormenters. This will be the inevitable response rather than the far more appropriate soul searching, redirection and spirit of collegiality that is needed.
Rumors have swirled about town for several weeks that an insurgent group within the Committee was seeking to depose Mrs. Woodruff from her Chairmanship.
However, those very rumors pointed up a desperate lack of foresight in the substance of the Committee’s own policies.
Unlike the Town Council which has specific provisions for the removal of its Chairman in the Town Charter, the School Committee has no such guidelines.
In lieu of such provisions the Policy Manual states, “Robert's Rules of Order, Newly Revised will govern the proceedings of the Committee, except when those rules are in conflict with the Committee's approved policies and regulations.
In accordance with Robert's Rules, the Committee may suspend parliamentary rules of order by a two-thirds vote.”
However, Robert’s Rules only allows for the removal of the regularly elected Chairman in two cases.
The first is in the case of “Misconduct or Dereliction of Duty in Office”. It is doubtful that any such basis could have been found to remove Mrs. Woodruff along these lines. Even if such grounds could have been fabricated, other components of Committee Policies would have allowed a determined Chairman to frustrate such efforts. I will return to these matters momentarily.
The second provision of Robert’s Rules that allows for the removal of the Chair was only added in the 11th Edition published in 2011. This allows members to suspend the rules and elect a temporary Chair for that specific meeting. However, since the rules cannot be suspended for future meetings, this action would have to be repeated at every meeting.
Let me return now to the earlier point as to how Committee Policy allows a determined Chair to frustrate any effort at their removal even if grounds existed under the provisions for misconduct or dereliction of duty.
The School Committee Policy Manual states, “Items of business [for the agenda] may be suggested by any individual. The inclusion of such items, however, will be at the discretion of the chairman of the Committee with the exception of a proposed agenda item requested by at least four committee members. A staff member who wishes to have a topic scheduled on the agenda should submit the request through the Superintendent.”
Thus, any item that might call for the removal of the Chair could be left off the agenda at the discretion of the Chair.
Now, the Policy Manual does provide that such discretion is overcome when “a proposed agenda item [is] requested by at least four committee members.”
Similarly, the Policy Manual allows for a special meeting when requested by four Committee members. “2. Special meeting: an official legal action meeting called between scheduled regular meetings to consider specific topics. Special meetings shall be called by the secretary at the request of the chairman or at the request of four members. No business shall be transacted at any special meeting of the School Committee which does not come within the purpose set forth in the call for the meeting unless all members of the School Committee are present and agree to the consideration of the additional items.”
However, a determined Chair could once again stymie any such effort.
The reason is that Massachusetts State Law always trumps local policies.
The stated condition for an item to be forced on to the agenda of a regular meeting or to be the basis for a special meeting is the request of four Committee members. However, four members constitute a majority of the Committee. The meeting of such a majority of the Committee to prepare such a request would be a violation of the state’s Open Meeting Law. Hence, the Chair could refuse to honor any such request because it was the result of an illegal meeting.
The foregoing illustrates the magnanimity of Mrs. Woodruff’s action. Had it been her desire, she could have maintained her Chairmanship regardless of any contrary desire on the part of the Committee – assuming, of course, that they abided by the existing policies, rules of procedure and state law. The Town Council has repeatedly demonstrated its disregard for such matters, so why should they apply to the school board?
Clearly the remaining School Committee brain trust needs to revisit its existing policies before a real crisis develops.
All this having been said, we now turn to the question of “What next”?
While Mrs. Woodruff’s removal was being speculated upon, assumptions were made that she might resign from the Committee completely in such an event.
Her resignation now being a fait accompli, the rumors that accompanied such speculation become relevant. This is especially the case in light of the special Committee meeting scheduled for tomorrow night.
A vacancy on the Committee this far in advance of the next election provides that a replacement will be chosen at a joint meeting of the School Committee and the Town Council.
One faction involved in the effort to unseat Mrs. Woodruff retains its loyalty to a previous leadership. It is rumored that this faction would like to see the vacant seat populated by former Committee Chairman Jack Jovan with the ultimate goal of reinstating him as Chairman. At points throughout the following narrative I have explained how the desired goal of this faction might be achieved.
Under this rumored scenario, this faction would move at Wednesday night’s meeting to allow Vice Chairman Lauren McLoughlin to merely fulfill her role as acting Chairman until Mrs. Woodruff’s replacement is appointed.
School Committee Policy states that,
“1. Nominations for the office of chairman will be made from the floor. The chairman will be elected by a majority roll-call vote of the members present and voting. If no nominee receives a majority vote, the election will be declared null and void and nominations will be reopened.
2. Upon election, the new chairman will preside, calling for the election of a vice-chairman, secretary and recording secretary, in order. The procedure used for their election will be the same as that for electing the chairman.
Any vacancy among the officers occurring between organizational meetings will be filled by a member elected by the School Committee. The election will be conducted as described above.”
The logic of this scenario is that attention would then be turned to the joint meeting where Mr. Jovan would be a candidate for the vacancy and that he would receive the majority of votes necessary for appointment.
Then, at the next meeting of the School Committee, Mr. Jovan would come in with a guarantee of at least three votes for Chairman.
It is worth noting that, given ambiguity in the last sentence of the above cited policy, when it comes to the election of a new Chairman, there would also be the possibility of a new Vice Chairman (as well as secretary and recording secretary). [i.e. the term “the election” could be construed as referring to the entire process outlined rather than filling a single position when “the election” begins with election of the chairman.] This would be dependent on how the newly elected Chairman chose to interpret it.While the Chairman’s decision could be appealed, a majority vote would sustain the decision of the Chair.
Conceivably, the Vice Chairmanship could be traded for a deciding fourth vote. It could, after all, put the recipient into the position of becoming Chairman next year. At that time the term Mr. Jovan is filling will expire. He could promise his vote for Chairman to a prospective Vice Chairman if he is reelected. If he is not reelected, the Vice Chairman would, nevertheless, have a leg up.
Let me emphasize that this is not a prediction. It is simply an exploration of one possible chain of events that is rumored to be afoot.
If there is any substance to this rumor and the scenario outlined for its realization, it will certainly make for interesting further developments.
That assumes that the dysfunctionality we’ve seen in Washington manifesting itself on the local level is merely “interesting”.