Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Pulling Strings (or Being Pulled)

In today's O-D we find a perfect example of how the Utica School Board (but it could also be the regional water board or any other kind of board) allows itself to be manipulated by its management and/or a group of "insiders."

Manipulation Technique 1: Drop a Bomb -- Tonight the board will be reviewing and approving contracts, this time involving a police officer who is under indictment. Apparently this was a surprise to some board members, since Mr. LaPolla (obviously not an "insider") complained about not being notified earlier.

Manipulation Technique 2: Claim an Action is Required -- Supt. Skermont claims that she's just "following regulations" that require school districts to have contracts with non-union employees.

Manipulation Technique 3: Imply that a decision is required NOW -- Raising an issue without warning and citing a regulation requiring action implies that something must be done NOW.

Manipulation Technique 4: Use fear of the Unknown --Raising an issue without warning, citing a regulation requiring action, and implying that something must be done now, suggests "there will be hell to pay later if you don't do what I want."

Manipulation Technique 5: Use insiders to Marginalize the Opposition -- Board Member Pellegrino lauds the efforts of the indicted police officer and proclaims "In America, we are innocent until proven guilty..." implying that anyone who does not approve of the contract must somehow be un-American.

There are probably more techniques being used, but, hopefully, you get the picture. Certain board members always seem to have the inside track, controlling/knowing what will be on the agenda and who will be voting with them to push something through, while other members are unaware that an issue is even going to come up at a meeting.
Constituencies represented by the "outsiders" are deprived of their voice. This is not responsible government. It is government serving private rather than public interests.

The single most important thing a Board can do to avoid being a "rubber stamp" for special interests is to set its own agenda, and do it publicly. Contrary to popular practice, Superintendants (or board presidents or chairmen or chief executive officers) should NOT be setting board agendas. Ms. Skermont and her minions are being paid enough to be able to keep track of contracts that may be coming up for renewal, and to advise the Board well in advance of when action may be required. It is Ms. Skermont's responsibility to raise upcoming "action" items as "New Business" for the board to put on the agenda, if it wishes, for a FUTURE meeting: There will be no "bombs," no surprises for Mr. LaPolla or any other board member to complain about. There will be time to determine what is really "required" - and what the consequences might be if the alleged requirement is not met.

The O-D article mentions the prior approval of Dr. Laino's contract. Board President Kline noted that Dr. Laino "was instrumental" to obtaining the grant involved, and Mr. Pellegrino noted that Ms. "
Skermont assured the board that every program run by Laino was successful." While these things may be true, it also was recently reported that a significant percentage of Dr. Laino's operating budget went toward her salary -- much higher than the norm for similar providers. This begs the question: Is the Board really getting value for the dollars expended? If these contracts are brought up for approval with little advance notice, there is no time to look at alternative courses of action. Of course, if an "insider" wants to ensure that the contract goes through, leaving no time for deliberation guarantees that result . . . and a private interest will again be served at the public's expense.

If the Utica School Board is serious about serving the public, it will insist on setting its own agenda. If the Board continues to allow others to perform this function, then a majority of its members are serving private interests.

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