Should a school board speak to the public with one, united voice? In Riverside Elementary School District 96, not everyone thinks so.
And, school board Vice President Mary Rose Mangia voted against such agreements, a sort of code of conduct for school board members, adopted by the school board in a 5 to 1 vote at its meeting on June 21.
The two-page set of agreements were prepared after the school board met in closed session in late April with a staffer from the Illinois Association of School Boards (IASB) to work on board dynamics and operations.
That kind of meeting is common after a new board is seated, but the District 96 board did not get around to doing it until a year after the April 2015 election. Three new board members were elected at that time, but the board focused on more pressing concerns such as hiring a new superintendent.
The agreements adopted by the board include six bullet points under a heading called “speaking with one voice” and also has a heading called “no surprises,” which states that “no one, (superintendent or board members) gets surprised at any time – in the meeting or between board meetings.”
The agreements also state that no staff time will be spent researching an agenda item until a majority of the board agrees to discuss the agenda item; they emphasize that board members must work through the superintendent when discussing problems raised by the public and that no individual board member has authority to fix a problem.
Board members are also warned about disclosing anything said in closed session and they are encouraged not to dwell on the past.
In May, Mangia announced that she would be voting against the board agreements and read a lengthy statement explaining the reasons for her no vote.
“I am concerned that board members with agendas will use these agreements as a club to promote group-think and stamp out diversity of thought and expression and approach,” Mangia said.
Mangia had been board president until the 2015 election. After the election she decided not to seek another term as board president. Jeffrey Miller, with Mangia’s support, was ultimately elected board president by a unanimous vote of the school board in May of 2015.
Neither Mangia nor Miller was anxious to talk to the Landmark about how they were getting along.
Miller declined to elaborate and declined to comment about Mangia’s statement at the May board meeting.
“I’m interested in the topics that are relevant for the community,” Miller told the Landmark. “I’m certainly not so interested in the personal dynamics of people on the board.”
Miller said that board agreements are not meant to silence board members. He said that he welcomes disagreement and debate before a vote, but once a vote is taken it is time to move on.
“I am not a big fan of saying everything has to be unanimous,” Miller said. “I don’t think that’s true and I don’t think it’s healthy. But I am big fan of saying we have our discussion, we have our debate and then we vote and then at that point we move on.”
Miller also said that he doesn’t have a problem with other board members talking to the press or making statements outside of school board meetings.
“I’ve never had any problem with that,” Miller said. “In fact, people can say whatever they like as long as they’re not representing their own personal views as the views of the board.”
In her May 17 statement, Mangia said that she sensed an ulterior motive behind the new board agreements.
“Governance agreements are not about limiting human interaction and regulating board wide dynamics, but some board members want to make them so,” Mangia said.
Mangia also attacked the IASB, a nonprofit organization that is funded by dues from school boards and serves as resource for school boards and provides training for school board members.
She criticized IASB Executive Director Roger Eddy, who prior to that job served simultaneously as a state representative and a public school superintendent. The president and secretary of the school board that employed Eddy worked on Eddy’s political campaign, Mangia said.
“Do you want to get your code of conduct from an organization that this man leads?” Mangia asked.
Mangia said that she has attended a few IASB workshops and has found some to be useful, but she believes the IASB promotes a philosophy that puts too many limits on school board members.
“The underlying message that I hear from the IASB is that while board members have an individual legal duty to perform an oversight role, they have no basis as board members to perform their role in a responsible manner,” Mangia said.