New London BOE remote roll call should be used rarely

A recently re-affirmed bylaws provision of the New London Board of Education, allowing members to attend and participate in meetings electronically, shows the complexities of translating laws, policies and even Robert's Rules of Order for a digital democracy.

Board Policy 9325.43 states a strong preference for members to participate in person at all meetings but allows for remote attendance and participation "under limited conditions." The conditions are that a member who is not present physically but is connected electronically may cast a vote on a matter before the board, provided he or she is connected throughout the discussion of the item at hand.

According to Chairperson Mirna Martinez, whose job it is to run the meeting and administer the pertinent bylaws, that means a member present by conference call or Skype or any other digital connection has to be able to hear and be heard by the people in the room. Joining a meeting midway through discussion of a topic disqualifies the member from participating until the next matter comes up.

Oddly, the bylaw states that a member allowed by the board to participate remotely will be considered present and can introduce and second motions but will not be counted for the purpose of convening a quorum — a majority of the seven-member board. When asked by The Day, a spokesman for the Freedom of Information Commission said the FOI Act "would permit members to participate electronically and would count those participating in that fashion toward a quorum." To us that makes sense — you're there or you're not there for all purposes. The board may be signaling its preference to have all members show up if possible.

Indeed, not all board members have completely embraced the concept. Martinez had her reservations when the board first adopted the policy in June 2016, saying recently that she still thinks the only way to "test the thickness of the air" at a meeting is by being physically present and seeing the reactions of the public, fellow members and the administrators. She makes an excellent point that experienced officials and public-minded citizens will recognize.

However, Martinez said, she respected the arguments of fellow board members who pointed out at the time that 21st-century businesses routinely use electronic conferencing. The subject resurfaced in January when the policy committee, chaired by member Jason Catala and including two other board members and three non-members, proposed limiting electronic participation to four times a year per member.

The minutes of the Jan. 25, 2018 meeting show a thoughtful response by the board, which, other than Martinez and Catala, consists of five freshman members. In being asked to revisit the policy 19 months after its first adoption, they were getting their first shot at it. They voted the same way their predecessors had, to allow remote participation without restriction. Ultimately, they were stumped by what the board could have done to enforce a policy that might limit attendance, even the electronic kind, by a person who had been voted by the citizens to represent them. The vote was 6 to 1 against the proposed amendment, according to the minutes.

The Day does not support the notion that a practice in use by corporate boards should automatically be considered appropriate for a publicly elected body that spends taxpayer money. At the same time, we don't view the New London school board's adoption as a rubber stamp of the corporate approach. Instead, it was a thoughtful, twice-deliberated move with appropriate safeguards. It will be a policy overseen by a vigilant chairperson and is in compliance with the state Freedom of Information law.

It is up to the good faith of the board members not to abuse the new policy. Our strong preference is to see the Board of Education members in their seats, debating the issues and listening to the public − in person. Digital participation should be a rare occurrence resulting from unusual circumstances.

Even beyond the topic of electronic participation, what we see in the board's actions is the work of a committed body of citizens attending carefully to their task of setting policy for the public schools. Not long ago that couldn't be said. It took long-term state intervention to set things straight. Now it seems safe to say that policy-making, and the good of the schools, are in careful hands.

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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