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Froggatt: Montgomery board chair overreach limits public debate on school reopening plan

Froggatt: Montgomery board chair overreach limits public debate on school reopening plan

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As a former school board member and vice chair, I am dismayed by the events at Tuesday night’s meeting of the Montgomery County School Board, especially the conduct of my former colleague, Board Chair Marti Graham.

Ms. Graham’s actions to limit board discussion, move up a previously scheduled vote, and eliminate public address on a topic that affects the entire community are worrisome.

The topic of discussion for nearly five hours was whether to change the attendance phase and level from four half-days per week of in-person instruction to four full days per week, increasing in-person classroom capacity from an average of 39% to 69%. In addition, all in-person students would now be eating at school at capacities well beyond the 50% currently mandated for restaurants.

This topic has been the source of heated discussion and anxiety across the state since the decision was placed in the hands of local school boards last summer. Last week both the CDC and Gov. Northam urged schools that are currently all-remote to return to some form of in-person instruction when it can be done safely. Montgomery County Public Schools are already in-person half-time.

The new CDC guidance states the “first step in determining when and how to reopen safely involves assessing the level of community transmission.” They felt this factor was so important that they provided two new indicators for determining when schools can reopen safely based on the number of cases and the testing positivity rate.

Montgomery County is currently at the High Transmission (RED) level for number of cases and the Substantial Transmission (ORANGE) level for testing positivity rate. According to the CDC indicators for community transmission, MCPS should not be considering increasing in-person instruction. However, the school board chose instead to move forward with a vote to increase in-person attendance. It is the way that vote will be taken that concerns me.

My first concern involves the conduct of Chair Graham when the board discussion portion of the meeting began. Rather than open the floor as is standard procedure, she instead “called on” board members and did so in the order of her choosing. Notably, she called on those most opposed to the change first, then allowed those in favor of the change to speak last. Once each member had spoken, she attempted to shut down additional discussion and instead schedule a special session on Feb. 23. Several board members protested so discussion continued, but once again as called on by Chair Graham in the same order as before.

My second concern is what I view as Chair Graham’s inappropriate use of board policy. Shortly after midnight, she invoked School Board Policy 1-6.7 Special School Board Meetings (which allows the board chair or two or more board members to call a special session) to move up the previously planned discussion and vote on the attendance level from the regularly scheduled meeting on March 2 to a special session on Feb. 23.

The special meeting policy is intended for two purposes. The first is to schedule emergency meetings to address immediate issues that cannot wait until the next regularly scheduled meeting. The special session on Dec. 11 that moved students in grades seven through 12 to all-remote instruction due to a shortage of healthy teachers and substitutes was a clear and appropriate example of an emergency meeting.

The special session called by Chair Graham in no way meets this criterion, although she has tried to claim it does in emails to constituents, giving “the need to have more than 4 days to prepare for the move to Phase 3, Level 3” as justification. The date of March 8 to implement the change could easily be delayed as stated by board member Gunin Kiran.

The second purpose is to schedule additional meetings beyond the semi-monthly regular meetings to address ongoing issues that require more discussion, such as the budget or COVID-related issues. The board used this provision appropriately for the Dec. 8 special session which was introduced publicly on Nov. 16, three weeks before the meeting. Although the one-week notice for the Feb. 23 special session complies with the meeting notification requirement laid out in the policy, I do not believe it complies with the “intent” of the policy which is to allow for additional discussion, not limit it.

My third and deepest concern is that limitation on speech. Chair Graham is not allowing public address at this special session. The special meeting policy does not prohibit public address and public address was included in the Dec. 8 special session.

No explanation was given by Chair Graham for not allowing public address other than her statement “because I can.” Just because she can does not mean she should. In short, Ms. Graham used the power of the board chair to limit board debate, rush through a vote and eliminate public discussion. This action is disturbing as it sets a precedent for the board chair to overreach at a time in our country when executive abuse of power is a national concern.

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