News Analysis: Did GM follow the ‘Rules’ in mascot vote?

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2023 Telegraph Publishing LLC

In the confusion that followed the end of last week’s Green Mountain Unified School District meeting, Vice Chair Adrienne Williams asked how Robert’s Rules of Order would handle the complicated situation that had just unfolded.  See Friday’s article: GM votes to keep Chieftain …

Henry M. Robert

At that moment, it was known that two board members had resigned. Shortly after that, another resigned and Superintendent Lauren Fierman informed GM Board Chair Deb Brown of her intention to resign from the Two Rivers Supervisory Union.  Since then, two of the members who resigned have expressed interest in rescinding that decision but it appears that the board chair is accepting the resignations rather than considering the requests to take them back.

The “Robert” in Robert’s Rules of Order was a U.S. Army officer who published his first edition of the rules in 1876. Col. Henry M. Robert became interested in parliamentary procedure in 1863 when he was asked to run a church meeting and felt unprepared to do it. In 2020, the 12th edition was published.

It’s been many years since I used Robert’s regularly and my parliamentary procedure was pretty rusty, but in the past few days I’ve spent some time with the most recent edition of the text, comparing it with what took place that night. What’s clear to me is that most of what happened last Thursday from a procedural viewpoint passes muster with Robert’s but some questions remain.

First, school boards in the state are mandated by law (16 VSA 554) to use Robert’s Rules. Select boards, planning commissions, development review boards and others may decide to use Robert’s or other rules of procedure. Some don’t adopt any rules at all, but school boards do not get that choice. So if the state is so insistent about mandating those specific rules, one might expect that the rules would have some weight in how legal questions are decided.

The way it happened

The question of whether the Chieftain name violates the board’s policy on non-discriminatory mascots or branding was triggered by several complaints by individuals and organizations saying that it did. After hearing the complaints on April 11, the board had 45 days to answer them in writing.

The 1876 first edition of Robert’s Rules of Order

The vote last Thursday, May 18,  was toward the end of the agenda and Brown said that the board had decided not to have a discussion but just to vote. Brown asked for a motion, the wording of which in retrospect may have been the root of the problem.

“We need a motion one way or the other,” said Brown, “that we’re in violation or that we are not in violation.”

“I move that we are not in violation of the non-branding policy,” said board member Jeff Hance.

Thus the wording of the motion meant that a member voting “yes” was saying “no, it does not violate the policy” while a member voting “no” was saying “yes, it does violate the policy.” There was some confusion and the meaning of the vote was explained several times.

A roll call vote was conducted resulting in a 5-5 tie and Brown, after reading a statement, broke the tie by voting that the Chieftain name did not violate the policy.

Shortly thereafter, Cavendish board member Dennis Reilly resigned and left the meeting. Cavendish member Kate Lamphere resigned and turned off her camera but remained on the Zoom call and the meeting continued.

During public comment toward the end of the meeting, Chieftain proponents thanked the board while opponents expressed disappointment and shame at the vote.

Just before the end of the meeting, Chester board member Katie Murphy said she had been dealing with spotty internet and did not understand the vote. She told the board that it was her intent to vote that the name does violate the school policy. Brown told the meeting that Murphy could not change her vote since she had asked to change it only after the votes had been counted and the result announced.

Up to this point, everything had been done correctly under the rules of procedure. Robert’s says that up to the moment of announcing the result, a member can change his or her vote. After that, it takes a unanimous vote of the board to permit the change. There were other avenues available to Murphy to change her vote – a motion to reconsider followed by a motion to recess – for example. During a recess, Reilly might have been contacted to return in person or via Zoom. This points to the problem that while Robert’s is required by the state, there is no training or even a cheat sheet given to board members.

As to the spotty internet as a mitigating factor, the latest edition of Robert’s is the first to address electronic participation in meetings and it dismisses the notion that a bad connection could be a cause for changing  an outcome. Regarding “technical malfunctions,” the rules say that “each member is responsible for his or her connection to the telephone conference call and to the Internet; no action shall be invalidated on the grounds that the loss of, or poor quality of, a member’s individual connection prevented participation in the meeting.”

One thought for the future is that such decisions would be made more definitively if the motion stated the question in a way that the intent is clear. For example, “does the use of the Chieftain name violate the E5 policy?”  By eliminating the possibility of misunderstanding, the motion gives members more confidence in their votes and the public a larger measure of credibility.

By the same token, a member can ask the chair for help in forming the wording of a motion and once a motion is on the floor members of the board can move to amend it to improve the wording for clarity. It is unfortunate that the vote change was too late to count leaving the otherwise legally arrived at result with a sense of taint.

What to do with resignations

After the meeting Katie Murphy also resigned, but immediately thought better of it and asked to rescind her action. Kate Lamphere has also considered rescinding her resignation but Robert’s Rules poses a question about who can accept a resignation or allow it to be rescinded.

Under Robert’s Rules, the entity that appoints or elects a member to the board is authorized to accept a resignation.  The voters of a town elect a representative to the school district board and the body that represents them is the town’s select board. So there is an argument that the Select Board for a member’s town of residence would be the appropriate place to send a resignation from the school board and the place to make a case to rescind the resignation.

There is also the view that the elections for school board are school district elections and thus the district board would be the place to resign or ask to rescind it. That prompts the question of whether the school board (a municipality governed by representatives of four towns) can accept a resignation on behalf of the voters of one of those towns. And if it can accept a resignation, is that a decision for the full board or for the chair?

These are legal questions that will probably never see a courtroom and if there are appeals to the Agency of Education and the secretary rules much of this may be moot. What is clear is that however the GM board shakes out there’s likely to be disagreement and controversy in the future and that favors those who understand the “rules” and how to use them.

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  1. MARY WATKINS says:

    This particular article states the thoughts I have been mulling over much better than I ever could.

    There ARE rules and guidelines for the actions, hierarchy, structure and authority of and over the school board. This situation is an example of “how not to”.

    Talking with other members of the GMUSD community, the concern is this particular meeting is an escalation of behavior demonstrated at past meetings. It’s not right.

    I am not convinced Shawn’s analysis statement is accurate. “Up to this point, everything had been done correctly under the rules of procedure”. I DO agree with his closing statement “there’s likely to be disagreement and controversy in the future and that favors those who understand the “rules” and how to use them.”

    As a Cavendish community member, I want all board members to use the rules to do the right thing and do it the right way.

  2. Geraldine Williams says:

    This is a good article. Written about facts. It is sad that the rules do not clearly outline who actually is in charge of our school board representatives of each town. I think this is due to the reconfiguring of the school board in the first place. Before the change Andover had one representative on the CAES board. One representative on the GMUHS board. We also had a representative on the supervisory union board. Now we only have one representative for all. One voice for our town, for all of our children.

  3. Linda Diak says:

    Thank you, Shawn.