Silent Treatment 

The School Board has a new way of fostering cooperation: Agree with us — or else.

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The measure passed unanimously during last week's Richmond School Board meeting, slipping through the shadows and fog of a packed agenda otherwise dominated by a contentious budget fight.

The new provision says that board members must sign an agreement to “uphold and support the decisions of the majority of the board once a decision is made” and to “maintain fidelity” to the School Board in contact with the media.

Breaking the rules come with consequences: “should any one of us fail to live up to these commitments, [board members will] be held accountable by … the district's chief legal counsel.” In other words, publicly disagreeing with the majority of the School Board, or Superintendent Yvonne Brandon, could be punishable by law.

The kind of punishment is unclear, as is the question of constitutionality. But its intent is crystal. In this new era of cooperation and accountability at City Hall, the ordinance signals a potentially dangerous new direction for the School Board still reeling from the aftershocks of recently departed Mayor L. Douglas Wilder.

“That's the most disturbing thing I've heard,” says Don Harrison, a local journalist and frequent critic of Richmond school shenanigans. He slams the board's actions on his blog, “Here is what puzzles me: I thought that the Richmond School Board represented us, the people… With this new policy, the school board seems to be confirming that it exists only to parrot the status quo.”

Add to it a push by Brandon to do away with City Council's stronger oversight of the school budget (she wants a return to “lump-sum” budget approval), and her deflection of School Board members' requests for more budget information, and it's an ironic place for the School Board to find itself. Brandon referred request for comment to board Chairwoman Chandra Smith, who did not reply.

For the past four years, the School Board has been under attack by former Mayor Wilder and the business community, who wanted to go back to allowing City Council to appoint School Board members. But the public roundly rejected the idea, and replaced more than half of the School Board in the November election.

The message is that the people, not the politicians at City Hall, will hold the School Board accountable for managing and fixing public schools. But there's always been a fundamental obstacle to the accountability debate: money.

“I do think that when you have an elected school board, certainly the expectation among the citizens [is that] the school board is responsible for schools,” says John Moeser, a University of Richmond urban studies professor and longtime observer of local politics. “But in the most fundamental way, the board is not.”

Moeser refers to the simple reality that the School Board depends on City Council for funding. The two-step process provides a buffer between the School Board and its voters, he says.

In other words, when things go well in schools, the board gets the credit. But when things go badly — especially when there are allegations of mismanagement — City Council is ultimately tasked with taking the checkbook away.

Or, as Earl McClenney, a professor of public administration at Virginia State University and former adviser to Gov. Tim Kaine, puts it: “If you don't control the purse strings, then all you're doing is talking.”

That disconnect led 26 business leaders to band together to sign a letter two years ago calling for a return to an appointed school board. While many people saw the ploy as a Wilder-directed power play, one of the letter's chief architects, Dominion Resources chief Thomas Farrell, says the move would have made the School Board and City Council more accountable for their actions.

“The issue we identified in the letter is … that you find yourself in a situation where the School Board hires the superintendent and sets the policy, but does not have the final say over the budget, or the ability to raise the funds itself. … It makes for a difficult situation,” Farrell says. “At least if you have council members appointing the School Board members, there's accountability there.”

Farrell has abandoned the call for an appointed board, but he remains active in his desire to help Richmond Public Schools progress. His leadership on the superintendent search committee ultimately led to Brandon's hiring as superintendent.

“I have a great deal of faith in the School Board in knowing what was good for the school system at this time,” Farrell says.

But it's difficult to see how threatening School Board members with legal action if they disagree — the measure passed last week — fosters more accountability.

Second District School Board member Kim Gray says she voted for the measure for procedural purposes. To formally challenge a School Board decision at a later date, a member must vote for it initially. But she thinks the effort's out of whack with basic democratic principles — if not the law.

More fundamentally, it hamstrings the board, Gray says: “If new facts come forward later, we can't even challenge our own consensus. It's as if we voted that the world were flat and we could never come back and say it was round.”

That basic point is shared by Kirk T. Schroder, a former president of the State Board of Education.

“I'm totally against any muzzling of any school board member,” Schroder says. “I think there's one thing to have a consensus-building exercise as opposed to anything that suggests the minority giving up their legal rights.”

Fundamental to those rights, Schroder says, is the board's role as lord of its financial house. Muzzling the board's dissenting minority seriously conflicts with the its ultimate responsibility, Schroder says — managing the budget.

That the muzzle decision arose after some School Board members asked for more information on Brandon's proposed budget is equally disturbing, Schroder says. “I think any elected official should have the ability to gather any information they need to do their job,” he says.

In the case of Richmond — and other achievement-challenged urban school districts around the country — the information-gathering process is critical, says Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

“When you're brought in to clean up a mess, whether it's AIG or an urban school system, any responsible official is not going to be casual or trusting of the financial metrics,” Hess says. “The boards [of bankrupt corporations Tyco and Enron] were insufficiently skeptical and weren't asking the tough questions.”

That's School Board member Gray's point.

“A third of a billion dollars is a lot of money for a third of our students not to be graduating,” she says of the school system's $270 million budget, adding that board members' responsibility is to improve that record by being better watchdogs.

Hess concurs: “I suspect Richmond taxpayers would rather have the board be too intrusive under those circumstances.”

Or as Carol A.O. Wolf — the vocal former School Board member many critics suspect of being the inspiration for the School Board's new restraining order — puts it, “dissent is as American as the Fourth of July.” S

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