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Hot under the collar

SoVaNow.com / August 27, 2014
Maybe at their next meeting, members of the Mecklenburg County School Board can all agree to take the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.

Something sure needs to happen to cool down our steamin’ mad trustees, especially after last week. Undoubtedly you heard the news: two trustees, Dale Sturdifen and Glenn Edwards, walked out of the Aug. 18 meeting after board member comments were dropped from the agenda. Sturdifen got up to speak, presumably to unload on the School Board’s prior decision to extend the contract of Superintendent of Schools Dr. James Thornton, and he was ruled out of order by vice chairman Thomas Bullock, who presided over the meeting. Rather than sit down and shut up, Sturdifen turned around and walked out. (He was followed by Edwards.) It was the kind of show Jerry Springer would have appreciated back in the day.

(By the way, if you’re wondering about the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, it’s a fundraising campaign for the national ALS Association that’s gone viral on the Internet. ALS is a terrible neurodegenerative disease widely known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. The idea behind the Ice Bucket Challenge is either you write a decent-size check to the ALS Association, or else you write a very small check and agree to make up the difference by having someone dump a bucket of ice over you. Then you pass on the same challenge to three other people. The action is recorded via cell phone video and posted on Facebook and other social media sites, for the enjoyment of friends, foes and hilarity-seekers everywhere. There is a third option — tell the person asking you to send a donation to get lost — but this sort of behavior is strictly for killjoys, grumps and jerks. The brilliance of the ALS Association’s idea is borne out by the $80 million raised as of Monday, but the Ice Bucket Challenge is probably not the kind of campaign that can be replicated too many times. At some point, people will tell you to buzz off for lack of originality.)

Back to the School Board: Sturdifen’s walkout was all the more unusual because of the context in which it occurred. There are two issues involved here: general practice among Mecklenburg County governing boards, and specific policies of the School Board. Regarding the former, just about every board in the county — supervisors, town councils, planning commissions — sets aside time for members to speak their minds on just about anything, usually around the end of the proceedings. It’s actually a pretty decent way to keep the peace, insofar as members have equal latitude to raise issues and arguments whether they’re part of a majority voting bloc or not. (Most boards don’t really have what you’d call an identifiable majority, by the way. Usually it’s hard to predict with any regularity how coalitions will align with each contested vote. The School Board is an exception to this rule.) One other reason that boards choose to indulge the talkativeness of their members is these freewheeling discussions sometimes produce information and points of view that people may not have considered before. I’ve seen some excellent ideas arise out of board member discussions, even if the price is giving Bill Blalock free reign to spout off. And even, the Baskerville supervisor has been known to find a nut now and then.

Then there’s the School Board’s standard practice — or what remains of it. What’s really mind-blowing about the silent treatment imposed on Sturdifen last week is that it comes not long after another trustee, Sandra Tanner, made a big show of getting out of her seat, walking around to the microphone in front of where the trustees sit, and offering remarks as a self-styled member of the taxpaying public. (Unlike most in this latter group, Tanner speaks glowingly of Superintendent Thornton.) Contrast this behavior to one of the reasons given for the abrupt abandonment of board member comments at the most recent meeting — because it’s become a platform for political posturing. Huh? Elected officials seeking to ingratiate themselves with constituents by raising topics of interest? Who ever heard of such a thing!

Thornton, in explaining the change in policy, said it came at the advice of the School Board’s lawyer. Are we to infer that it’s time to get a new lawyer? I get why Thornton would want to clamp down on the board’s minority faction — that would be Sturdifen, Edwards and Dora Garner — in the wake of controversy over his contract extension, about which we’ll be hearing gobs in the run-up to the 2015 trustees elections. But where does the restraint on speech — putatively to facilitate the conduct of official business — end? Our Viewpoint column features a missive by School Board Vice-Chairman Thomas Bullock. Does his letter not also fall into the category of political posturing, or is it the height of Aristotelian logic?

Maybe it is what it is: a free expression of views, which in Thorntonworld is good for you and me but not for the critic behind the tree. This embarrassing episode will blow over, like all the rest, but it speaks poorly of the trustees’ understanding of how democracy works and their place within it that this nonsense should have ever occurred in the first place. Yes, there is point-scoring in politics. There also are elections. Let’s see if Thornton and the majority faction of the School Board can figure out the rest.







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