by Paul Bowers
Depending on how you look at it, Monday night's meeting of the Charleston County School District Board of Trustees was an entertaining spectacle, an embarrassing series of spats between elected officials, or democracy in action.
The board did manage to pass a budget for the 2012-2013 school year and approve the hiring of several new principals, but not without traveling down some long rabbit holes. Throughout the meeting, board members Elizabeth Kandrac and Elizabeth Moffly brought up several off-topic discussions, and they could be seen rolling their eyes and shooting indignant looks at the audience when they were rebuffed by their colleagues.
Meanwhile, Chairman Chris Fraser wore a look of thinly veiled exasperation, repeatedly asking the board to stick to the meeting agenda. In previous meetings, board member Cindy Bohn Coats has recommended that the district hire a parliamentarian to act as a referee for the board.
During discussion of the finalized 2012-2013 budget, Moffly proposed that the school district set aside some money to look into hiring an independent auditor. Fraser asked Moffly how much money she was asking the board to set aside, and she replied, "I'm not sure." Fraser pointed out that it was impossible to set aside money in the budget without knowing a definite dollar amount, but Moffly and Kandrac still discussed the merits of an audit for about 10 minutes.
The audience, which included teachers who had attended to find out if they would be receiving salary increases, became audibly restless after about two hours. They could be heard groaning when Kandrac announced that she had "about 25 questions" regarding the budget, to which Fraser replied, "Are you serious?"
If you've never been to a school board meeting before, here's what you're missing out on:
Kandrac started by greeting board member Elisabeth Ann Oplinger, who was participating in the meeting via telephone, and then launched into a critique of the budget packet she had received. She said the glossy publication from the district reminded her of "a couple of things that I've gotten in the past that I considered a little shady or devious." This drew a few puzzled laughs from the audience.
The first thing Kandrac wanted to know was whether the children in the photographs on the budget booklet were Charleston County students (the answer was yes). She complained to Chief Financial and Operations Officer Michael Bobby that she hadn't been given a line-by-line breakdown of every budget item, including the cost of light bulbs at every school. Then she asked for clarification about several section headings and asterisks in the budget, and she asked about an acronym she wasn't familiar with. Finally, she called on an unspecified board member to recuse him or herself from voting on the budget.
"There's a pending lawsuit where this budget will be paying for attorneys for someone on the board," Kandrac said, "and I think they should recuse themselves, because voting to approve this money that in turn pays for the counsel of the person would be, I think, remiss, afoul of the law."
At this point, board member Craig Ascue made a motion to close the debate, but the motion failed to carry in a 5-4 vote (a two-thirds majority was required).
In the end, the budget passed 8-1, with Kandrac as the only dissenting vote, but not until Moffly had spoken her piece. Comic relief came toward the end of the discussion, when Fraser asked Moffly if she had any more questions about the budget and she replied, "I did. Thank you so much for allowing my freedom of speech."
And then, whether intentionally or unintentionally, Oplinger's phone line went dead, and the room erupted in laughter. Board member the Rev. Chris Collins delivered the punch line of the evening:
"She showed her freedom of speech."