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School board bickers again over what should be in meeting minutes

Published 7:17 am, Wednesday, June 18, 2014
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A dispute among Board of Education members over minutes of their meetings peaked last week with the vice chairman saying the written record of school board meetings had become politicized.

"It's become a political issue, which the minutes shouldn't be," Paul Fattibene, one of four Republicans on the nine-member board, said during the June 10 meeting as a 33-minute debate over the May 6 minutes was ending. "Now it has become a political issue with a majority of the board wanting to control the minutes and what is in the minutes and what isn't in the minutes. That's the real problem here, and that's not going to be solved until the political issue changes."

Philip Dwyer, the board's chairman and a Democrat, disputed that politics play a role in the minutes. "I will object to your saying it is a political issue," Dwyer said. He said board members had a "fundamental difference of viewpoint" over how detailed minutes should be -- some board members believe the minutes should reflect actions and not words, while other members feel the minutes should be more expansive, Dwyer said.

"That's not a political issue. That is just a fundamental difference of viewpoint among board members," Dwyer said.

Republican members on the board have tried on a regular basis over the past six months to add comments they made during meetings to the minutes, but their attempts have been squashed, though the votes were not always on partisan lines.

John Convertito, a board member and Republican, referenced the long-running debate over the minutes by saying, "I don't know how or when this debate is going to end, and I go back and forth on it because a total omission of a conversation is one thing. A synopsis of it is another."

"This board has to come to some consensus on what we're doing here or we're just wasting another half-hour of the public's time," Convertito said.

Superintendent of Schools David G. Title expressed frustration with the board's ongoing debate by saying off-microphone, "Hire a transcription service and get it over with."

Board member Eileen Liu-McCormack, a Republican, last week tried to add comments Fattibene made at the May 6 meeting about the workshop model of instruction during a presentation by John Chiappetta, the school district's curriculum leader for English/Language Arts in grades 6 through 12.

Liu-McCormack's motion renewed the debate over what should be in the minutes.

"I guess my first question is why this, as opposed to everything else that happened in the course of that meeting?" asked board member Jennifer Maxon-Kennelly, a Democrat. "Why is only this what you're pulling out?"

Liu-McCormack said she is "very interested" in instructional methods and the workshop model and believes those topics should have been included in the minutes "to have reference in the future that we've had this discussion regarding the workshop model."

But Maxon-Kennelly said minutes aren't supposed to reflect the words of individual board members in a transcription-like form and that a different comment from Fattibene (about a common literary experience) during Chiappetta's presentation had been summarized in the minutes.

But John Llewellyn, a Republican board member, said the May 6 minutes didn't include a reference to Fattibene's conversation with Chiappetta about the workshop model. "I believe what Mrs. Liu-McCormack is asking is to have some memorialization of that conversation," Llewellyn said.

Marc Patten, a Democratic board member, said the minutes summarized Chiappetta's presentation on revising the English/Language Arts curriculum for grades 6 through 12, while Liu-McCormack wanted to add represented "a snippet" of one aspect of one conversation.

"If we're not going to write a book and put Mr. Chiappetta's entire 50-page presentation in the minutes then we can't have things like this in here," Patten said. "Minutes are summaries. I'm getting to be done with this type of conversation."

But Convertito said minutes ought to reflect board members' conversations, especially if they are with central office staff or involve issues that board members are passionate about.

Jessica Gerber, the board's secretary who writes the minutes and a Democrat, said Liu-McCormack's proposed change was "more than we need to do."

"To have these really lengthy exchanges when the rest of the minutes are not lengthy exchanges I think creates a very slippery slope where we could end up with 20-, 30-, 40-page minutes," Gerber said.

Liu-McCormack said she was open to having her proposed addition shortened, and Fattibene said the school board's minutes were the only record of its meetings that had to be maintained for a significant amount of time. Fattibene said minutes didn't have to include everything said at a merting, but should include what board members want included and should be "an accurate portrayal of what discussions occurred."

"Whether you liked the content of that discussion or not is not the deciding factor," Fattibene said. "The question is whether they occurred, and, if they occurred and are appropriate, I see no problem with incorporating them and putting them in the minutes."

Liu-McCormack's motion failed on a party-line vote of 4-4 (board member Donna Karnal, a Democrat, was absent.) Liu-McCormack's motion to add her own comments about the workshop model to the May 6 minutes failed on a 3-4 vote, with Convertito abstaining.

"It's not that any of this didn't happen," Dwyer said of Fattibene's and Liu-McCormack's comments May 6. "It's to what level of detail should be in the minutes ... I am a less-is-more person and have consistently held that opinion for the three years I have been here, and that's still my opinion."

Liu-McCormack replied, "I think less-is-more is different than complete omission. Less-is-more makes reference that the event actually occurred."

"The complete omission makes it seem as if it never happened, and I think that is just not right from the point [that] the minutes are supposed to keep history of what actually transpired," Liu-McCormack added. "You don't have to like what I said, but it was said and should be noted."

In November, Fattibene made a motion, seconded by Llewellyn, that the board's minutes "shall accurately record the essence of discussions during the Board meetings without discrimination based on viewpoint." That motion passed on a 5-4 vote, with Karnal joining the four Republicans.

But on May 15, that language was replaced, on a 6-3 vote, with, "The minutes shall contain a list of the speakers on each side of every question with an abstract or the text of each address."

The board on May 15 also voted to add in bold type at the top of minutes that audio tapes of its meetings were available from Central Office. At the time, Liu-McCormack said it wasn't practical to expect the public to listen to audio tapes of school board meetings to figure out what happened.

School board meetings are also recorded in video form by FairTV, which is accessible through the town's website.