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New Governance Norms, Status Quo Politics

School Lunch failures demos that Board norms should equip the School Board to act quickly in the case of an emergency, not prevent decisive action.

Pictures taken on September 17 at two different schools by 2nd District Board Member Mariah White and published on her Facebook page.

UPDATE: It now appears that Superintendent Kamras and his administration knew food contract procurement was non-compliant before the vote discussed below. For details of communications between the Kamras administration and the VDOE, see Carol Wolf’s blog post here.

While RPS’s reopening has had a consistently rocky start, few issues have been such a flash point for students and parents as the school lunches. Universally rejected by students (and widely thrown away, contributing to significant food waste) the meals have been criticized for everything from violating USDA standards for caloric minimums to being served partially frozen. Meal standards were so low, in fact, that in a September meeting of the School Health Advisory Board, Board members demanded a public apology from school administration.

Despite universal agreement that the meals were substandard, the School Board vote on how to respond was deeply divided: a motion to cancel the contract failed by 1 vote; a motion to increase Board oversight passed by only one vote.

A significant point of tension surrounding these votes has been fairly granular points of Board governance. Here’s a breakdown on why these nuances matter, and what needs to happen to ensure Board members can act quickly in support of our kids.

September 20th’s Board Meeting, and the Motion that Almost Wasn’t

On Monday, September 20th, Richmond Public Schools’ (RPS) 2nd District Board Member Ms. Mariah White brought forth a motion to cancel Preferred Meals $12.9 million contract to provide meals to RPS students within 30 days. This motion followed a presentation by Superintendent Jason Kamras in response to the well-documented deplorable state of food provided to RPS students since school started on September 8. Ms. White noted that the situation was an emergency, and she felt the Board needed to act immediately. Third District Board Member Ms. Kenya Gibson seconded the motion, stating that it was critical to act now because RPS students need to be eating healthy food, and that she had received unprecedented student outreach about poor food quality.

Excepts from local news media reporting on the state of RPS food.

Sixth District Board Member Dr. Shonda Harris-Muhammad indicated she would vote for the motion if it was amended to require a contingency plan or timeline from Mr. Kamras. Ms. White said she would amend the motion to include a timeline and properly asked if she could amend the motion on the floor. However, Seventh District Board Member and Board Chair Cheryl Burke inexplicably did not permit the amendment, and as a result, the motion failed 5–4 (with 4th District Board Member Mr. Jonathan Young and 5th District Board Member Ms. Stephanie Rizzi also voting for the motion).

After that vote, Ms. Gibson then introduced a motion to (1) require board counsel draft a board policy to require all contracts over $250,000 receive a first read prior to adoption, (2) ensure contracts are presented to the board for approval prior to the contract’s indicated start date; and (3) require the School Health Advisory Board (SHAB) present meal contracts to the board with sample menus and insights gathered from student taste tests. This motion did pass 5–4 (with Ms. White, Mr. Young, Ms. Rizzi, and Dr. Harris-Muhammad also voting for the motion).

The New RPS School Board Strategic Governance Manual

This is a microscopic, laborious, and, no doubt, boring explanation of what happened over the course of about 45 minutes during a board meeting. But what happened matters because the discussion that unfolded reveals a governance problem when the RPS School Board wishes to make motions on the day of the meeting — or deal with any exigent circumstance the Board feels it must address on the night of a meeting. The entire conversation about these two motions reveals a tension between board members on how to determine when members are following the rules and; who is governing with transparency; and who is attending to proper process. This tension, on display for months, is now further exacerbated by the introduction of new Norms and Protocols in the RPS’ Board’s Strategic Governance Manual, approved by a majority of the vote on June 28th.

Interestingly, the Virginia Department of Education required the RPS School Board to develop a Governance Manual following a “closed-door” March meeting between officials at the Department of Education and Chairwoman Burke. This move was not without critique, with Ms. Gibson pointing out that state intervention in the affairs of an elected school board is actually a not-so-subtle method of perpetuating the racist “notion that Black people cannot govern…and goes back in Virginia to the ugliest of racist ideology used to discredit the first Black public officials following the end of the civil war.” This is not the only recent example of questionable state intervention in the affairs of majority (and progressive) Black school boards. Nevertheless, Ninth District School Board Member Nicole Jones chaired a Governance Committee tasked with developing a Governance Manual. The Norms and Protocols established in the manual were crafted during School Board training sessions with the Virginia Department of Education and meetings of the Governance Committee. This Governance Manual was approved on June 28th, before it was due for submission to the Department of Education on July 1st. It was stated at the time of the vote that the Manual is a living document that the Board would come back and change as needed (provided the Board as a whole approved such changes).

Understanding what rules the School Board should follow is complex, much like any interpretation of what rules, regulations, laws, or policies a public body should follow. The governance rules for the School Board come from a hierarchy of authorities. As stated in Robert’s Rules of Order — the authority on parliamentary procedure and a riveting must-read for any diehard follower of board meetings — at the top of the hierarchy is law; second is charter or articles or incorporation for the board; third is the board bylaws (available on BoardDocs); fourth is rules of order (with special rules superseding de facto parliamentary rules); fifth is standing rules; and sixth is custom. As per RPS School Board Policy 1–6.3, the RPS School Board “shall follow standard parliamentary procedures, except as otherwise provided by bylaws.” For all intents and purposes, the Board and the Board’s counsel implements standard parliamentary procedure by following Robert’s Rules of Order.

So when the School Board attorney advises the Board on what rules they should follow, she will go through this order of authority, and use Robert’s Rules of Order to resolve many procedural governance issues during a meeting. The 12th edition of Robert’s Rules of Order is more than 700 pages; interpreting its many articles on the spot during a board meeting is no doubt challenging (see, for example, how many times a motion to call the question has been implemented incorrectly). But now, due to this new Governance Manual with additional Norms and Protocols, there is another layer of rules to follow (and debate about who is really following the correct rule or interpretation of a rule). So for example, Robert’s Rules of Order generally allows for 10 minutes of discussion by a Board Member on a topic, but the RPS Governance Manual now calls for a total of 6 minutes (3 minutes at first and 3 minutes in response) of discussion, and that special rule supersedes the standard Robert’s Rule of 10 minutes). Simple, right?

Unfortunately, the tension between interpreting these VDOE-recommended Norms and Protocols and Robert’s Rules of Order came to a head during the discussion about these food-related motions on September 20th. At the same time as discussing this disastrous food contact, the board was also engaging in a parallel debate between board members about whether new motions (e.g. motions that are not already on the agenda at the start of a board meeting) are permitted during board meetings. It was a very confusing debate to follow — and generally speaking, confusing debates are not good for the public.

A New Protocol for “Placing Items on the Board Meeting Agenda”

At issue was the new board protocol for “placing items on the board meeting agenda.” The new protocol specifies that the deadline to request to add items to an agenda is within 72 hours of a School Board meeting and that a School Board member who wishes to add an item to the agenda on the night of a School Board meeting ONLY has the option to add it to New Business, resulting in the item being discussed at the next board meeting. Of course, there are important reasons behind having this protocol, including transparency; public information and feedback; and granting time to the Administration to prepare relevant information for the agenda item at hand. However, the question during the Board Meeting on September 20th was whether an “agenda item” includes new motions that are properly discussed under a specific topic (such as Ms. White’s and Ms. Gibsons separate motions regarding food contracts brought up during a board discussion about said food contact).

Seeking perhaps to preface any new motions not already included in the Agenda — which is formed in partnership between Mr. Kamras, Chairman Bruke, and Vice Chairman Young — Governance Chair Jones sent out a letter the board at some point before the September 20th meeting to express that motions were to be considered new agenda items and thus could not be presented as a motion at the night of a meeting, and should instead be considered new board business to be discussed at a following board meeting. This letter is interesting because it imposes an interpretation of “agenda item” that conflicts with Robert’s Rules of Order and, if one watches the extensive legislative history of board discussion about this particular protocol, it also conflicts with the very intent of the protocol when it was approved.

As stated above, special rules like the norms and protocols can supersede the process laid out in Robert’s Rules of Order, which places a premium on a board having the ability to motion when it needs to do so. Indeed Robert’s Rules of Orders creates checks and balances on superfluous motions by limiting debate time and requiring a second on motions. And, interestingly, when Chairwoman Burke pressed the School Board lawyer to decide whether the motions were proper, the lawyer in fact sided with Robert’s Rules of Order, stating that a proper motion was on the floor with a second and that the Board should proceed to vote on the motion.

But the remaining, and less clear, issue is whether the School Board really intended to limit its ability to present new motions during a board meeting when it approved a protocol to limit new agenda items, as stated by Governance Chair Jones. Looking back at the extensive discussion regarding this new protocol on adding items to the agenda, it seems clear that both the Board and the Governance Committee meant only to restrict the ability of Board Members to add certain items for discussion to an agenda — not motions. The priority of the Board as expressed at this meeting was clearly on limiting a specific set of circumstances: a board meeting starts and a Board Member asks for a presentation or discussion on a topic that is not on the agenda and that the Administration and public has not yet had time to prepare for and needs notice to develop materials for a presentation or response. At no point during these discussions about this protocol was it discussed that Motions would be restricted by limiting new “agenda items.”

Furthermore, just practically speaking, it strains credulity to argue that a School Board would willingly create a protocol that restricts its ability to do its most essential function of governance. The ability of a School Board to pass motions is quintessential to its ability to govern as the people’s voice in the affairs of public schools. Not being able to pass motions on the night of a meeting in response to both normal affairs and emergency affairs is an undue restriction on a democratically-elected Board. And given that the School Board has operated through emergency circumstances since March 2019 due to the pandemic, it also harms the public to have a School Board hamstrung in its ability to address emergency situations — whether it is closing schools for an outbreak or addressing a contract issue that is harming RPS students daily.

At the very least, it would seem that broadly interpreting “agenda items” to include motions would require a Board vote to approve that interpretation. No such vote happened. The Governance Chair can most certainly issue opinions on what was agreed upon when the School Board approved its Governance Manual and its rather plain-on-its-face protocol regarding new agenda items. But this interpretation does not have a path to be binding on the School Board unless a majority of the School Board has voted to make it so. That has not happened, and as such, the motions presented by Ms. White and Ms. Gibson should not have been objected to by other members of the School Board.

Back to the Preferred Meals Contract…

Again, this is an arcane discussion and if you have read this piece so far, you must really have an interest in Board Governance! But this arcane point matters because it nearly precluded votes on an ongoing food crisis. At the time of the meeting, Chair Burke asked for clarity on allowing the motions, saying “we either follow the rules or we don’t…this is unbelievable.”

At one point, it appeared that Chair Burke might not permit Ms. Gibson to proceed with her motion (though a Chair’s decision could have been overruled by 2/3 of the Board). Fortunately the votes were held based on the advice of counsel. However, perhaps due to the confusion and tension at the meeting regarding motions not on the agenda, Chair Burke improperly denied Ms. White her procedural right to amend her motion on the floor. Perhaps a majority would have voted in favor of cancelling the Preferred Foods contract if such an amendment had been permitted.

As recently noted by the Richmond Free Press, the School Board’s August vote on this particular food contract has its own governance issues. For example, per School Board policy, the SHAB should have been involved in the selection of the vendor. It was not. Mr. Kamras, amazingly, assured board members at the time of the August vote on the contract that kids loved the food though the SHAB had not overseen student taste tests of the Grab and Go meals. Furthermore, the Administration “deprioritized” the hiring of cafeteria staff and rejected an offer from a staffing company to provide temporary workers until RPS could hire permanent workers.

This is all to say that there is a problem following protocols in RPS — both by the Administration and Board. Finger pointing is not helpful. But restricting the ability of the School Board to present motions on the night of a board meeting is also not helpful. A fuller conversation of this food contract on the night of September 20th would have been helpful for the public and RPS students who have to continue to eat cold pita “pizzas,” cold mystery meat sandwiches, and the very questionable potato salad. Given how “confusing” this Preferred Meals contract is, perhaps we the public are only on the top of an iceberg of what issues remain with this contract and what governance principles have been violated in granting this contract to Preferred Meals. If that is the case, we need a School Board that has the governing ability to fix these problems when it needs to fix the problems — and not make the public wait 2 weeks to see if a motion gets on an agenda.

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