In a bizarre meeting that sometimes proved the “Law of Triviality,” the Fairfax County School Board unanimously approved a controversial “Equity Policy” at 12:30 a.m. on June 27.
How the Meeting Unfolded
The School Board’s meetings are user-unfriendly. They begin at 7:00 p.m., but the discussion of pending business often doesn’t begin until 9:00 p.m. or later, making it difficult for citizens to attend. Before the meaty part of the meetings (if there is any meat, and often there isn’t), proclamations and recognitions are read and speechified about. Citizen participation follows (two minutes each by about 15 people), and then presentations to the Board about miscellaneous subjects are delivered. Only then does the Board consider action items.
The June 26 meeting was an egregious example. It began a bit late (at 7:15), and then four proclamations were presented. There were two tributes to retiring staffers, a tribute to this year’s student representative to the Board, and a presentation of a scholarship to an outstanding high school senior. On each of the four, all twelve Board members felt compelled to speak, so there were about 48 speeches! This took two hours, concluding at 9:20. (On a personal note, two of my neighbors were attending their first School Board meeting. It will probably be their last.)
Next came the citizen presentations, most of which focused on the proposed Equity Policy. These were followed by an update from the school Superintendent about special education issues, a speech by the outgoing student representative to the Board, and a slide show about possible changes to school boundaries. It was now 10:30 p.m.
Four action items were on the agenda: (1) approval of amendments to the Student Rights & Responsibilities regulation (SR&R), (2) approval of the proposed Equity Policy, (3) approval of amendments to the Board’s policy regarding proclamations at Board meetings, and (4) approval of a proposed increase in the salaries of School Board members. This is where the meeting spiraled into the absurd.
Dozens of amendments to the 75-page SR&R were being proposed for the 2023-24 school year. The discussion at the Board meeting dealt with one word on page 6o. The word is in a sentence dealing with parental involvement in possible disciplinary actions involving students with intellectual or developmental disabilities. The sentence currently provides that school officials won’t seek written or oral statements from these students about disciplinary matters until a parent or guardian has been notified. A Board member proposed to change “has been notified” to “has given consent.” The next ninety minutes of the meeting were focused on the proposal to change this one-word. In the end, the Board members couldn’t agree, so the issue was deferred to the next Board meeting for further discussion.
So, it was 10:55 p.m. when the Board finally turned its attention to the Equity Policy. The “Law of Triviality” posits that the amount of time spent on an agenda item by a bureaucracy will be inversely proportional to its importance or complexity, e.g., in a discussion of the design of a nuclear power plant, the most time will be spent discussing the quality of toilet tissue to stock in the restrooms. That law was definitely at work at the Board meeting. The Equity Policy was deemed to be monumental and tremendously important, but there was no discussion whatsoever of its vague language or controversial features.
The Board members, one by one, misleadingly asserted that the process of developing the policy was extraordinarily inclusive, never once mentioning that its text had been quietly released for the first time twelve days earlier, after the schools had recessed for the summer. Every Board member emphasized the noncontroversial aspects of the policy without acknowledging that there are legitimate issues about its intent and scope. When the vote was taken at 12:23 a.m., the policy was unanimously approved.
The meeting then turned to a proposed amendment to the Board’s policy for considering proclamations like the four that had consumed the first two hours of the meeting. The Board promptly approved an amendment to the policy, designed to expand the number of proclamations that can be presented at Board meetings.
Finally, the Board discussed a proposal to increase the salaries of Board members by 50%, from $32,000 to $48,000 per year. This was approved at 12:50 a.m.
The proposed Equity Policy is indeed an important one. “Equity” is a vague term that can have many controversial connotations, and there’s no doubt that the “equity” bureaucracy in the Fairfax County School System intends to use it to push contentious proposals. That’s why it should have been important to go slow, obtain input from the entire community, and try to build a consensus policy. Unfortunately, the School Board showed no interest in pausing to get it right. They rammed it through in the wee hours of the morning, without debate. The public will have to be vigilant to oppose the most pernicious dangers posed by this policy.
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