Dysfunction, which is not the same thing as gridlock, sometimes plagues public bodies. Impaired and maladjusted school boards and county commissions were a common occurrence in Palm Beach County 15-25 years ago, but the voters cleaned up the problem. Or so we thought.
It’s time to focus vigilant eyes again, this time on at least one current member of the school board. Member Debra Robinson has promoted a single-issue agenda for 11 years, and it never wavers. Along the way, she has demonstrated a deepening devotion to micro-managing the School District, and has chosen to get involved in issues that should be the province of the Superintendent. At one board training session when she admitted she talks to principals and staff all the time, she stated “I get all down in the weeds.” This is an inappropriate and incorrect role for a school board member, whose job is to set strategic policy for the school district and hire a superintendent who supervises other staff and is responsible for day-to-day operations.
But times they are a’changin’ for Debra Robinson. Last week, other school board members stood up to her and chastised her publicly for several of her recent rogue actions. Rightly so, and long overdue.
The board is searching for a permanent superintendent and has agreed as a group on a process to follow. Ms. Robinson has decided to call her own public meetings, and to operate independently from the board. She has created a “rubric,” her own score-sheet system that she devised to grade superintendent candidates. She has selected her own criteria for her scorecard, which she claims is what the “residents” want, but which she’s cooked up to fit a person of her choice for the Superintendent.
Nothing illegal about this, but a super-majority of the rest of the Board insists that the Board “must work collectively, and we shouldn’t all go off in different directions.” Another Board member commented, “Debra acted on her own. We should act as a group. We should not act inconsistently, and we need to correct this. I don’t agree to a rubric. We don’t need a scorecard, and I don’t believe a scorecard is the way to judge superintendent candidates.” Other Board members agreed, one commenting “A single board member should not step out on her own to do something that should be a board project, and we should be acting collectively.” “She ‘back-doored’ her public meetings.”
Board members also scolded Ms. Robinson for recently using district staff members and district resources to create a press release herself to advertise one of her “community meetings” she organized. Board members said, “We (the board) have only approved costs for meetings that this board approved…or that the administration approved.” Another said, “I do not approve the costs of meetings called by a single board member,” for video-taping expenses, for T.E.N. Educational TV network time, and staff time to write personal press releases. She was also upbraided because “Any press release must (first) be reviewed by… the superintendent.”
Ms. Robinson defends her actions by saying, “I am a voice for the voiceless.” I don’t know how many dozens of times I have heard this tired old political rhetoric cliché used by class-warfare aficionados. In this case, it’s especially amusing, because I don’t see many “voiceless” people at school board meetings. If anything, there are too many voices babbling about too many meaningless issues and taking up too much time. And frankly, Ms. Robinson works behind the scenes to stoke up her supporters and followers to come to meetings and berate other board members, stir up the waters, and criticize the district.
Mavericks and odd-ducks on elected bodies are OK until they cause dysfunction or malfunction in the group, by violating the group’s rules or creating their own. Dysfunctional actions by an elected official are equivalent to civil disobedience.
Ms. Robinson functions more as a community activist than a school board member. With 11 years on the board, she is behaving in ways that boost the popularity of term limits.