It’s still unclear whether the Baltimore County Board of Education is allowed to stick to a rule that calls for seven ‘yea’ votes to approve an agenda item, even when the 12-member board is missing members or some abstain. But things would look different if they hadn’t.
They would have renewed the chief auditor’s contract, former member Cheryl Pasteur would have been the board’s chair, and construction funds for Towson, Dulaney and Lansdowne high schools would’ve been added to the budget, according to meeting minutes.
The board’s handbook states that it observes Robert’s Rules of Order, a guide to parliamentary procedure, when conducting meetings “... except as provided otherwise either in this handbook or Board policy. Moreover, the Board is guided by its own policies, state statutes” and the Code of Maryland Regulations.
The handbook also states that “a motion is adopted with the approval of a minimum of seven members,” unless it’s a topic on which the student member (one of the 12) cannot vote. So if six members voted to approve an item on the agenda, with none opposing, the vote would still fail.
However, that guidance was recently called into question during a court hearing over whether chief auditor Andrea Barr could stay in her post.
Michael Swift, a parliamentarian, argued that motions should be considered as adopted when a majority of the board votes in favor of them. His interpretation was cited by a judge in a temporary restraining order that is allowing Barr to remain working even though the board chair had determined that a 6-0 vote to renew her contract had failed (based on the board’s 7-vote threshold). He also testified at Barr’s court hearing that following such protocols was improper and was contrary to Robert’s Rules.
Edmund O’Meally, a lawyer at PK Law who works with school boards around Maryland, said he can’t say the county’s dilemma is “highly unusual.”
“Each board has the ability to develop its own bylaws that would set forth the type of majority vote necessary to carry a motion or resolution,” he said.
He compared it to the U.S. Senate, which can approve some actions by a simple majority vote while essentially requiring a supermajority, an agreed-upon percentage higher than 50%, to pass other items. The Senate’s requirement that 60 votes are needed to end debate on legislation has blocked action on much of President Joe Biden’s agenda, from voting rights to a House-passed bill codifying Roe v. Wade.
At the local level, school boards can always change their bylaws, but only after members vote to do so, O’Meally added.
“We don’t like to have a divided board on an important issue, but we know sometimes it happens,” he said.
Questions have also been raised in the Barr court case over whether the board violated state law in turning to outside counsel for a number of matters. Some say state law only allows doing so when the board has a legal dispute with the county.
Here’s how things might look different in Baltimore County Public Schools if the board had required a simple majority for its actions.
Electing the chairperson
Pasteur would have been the board chair had she received one more vote during a special meeting Dec. 5, 2019. Kathleen Causey was the chair at the time and Julie Henn was the vice chair. During the meeting, John Offerman nominated Pasteur to be chair, and Lisa Mack nominated Causey. The vote for Pasteur was 6-5, but it nevertheless failed.
“When you only have 11 and (are) held hostage with seven, any number of things can happen,” Pasteur said in an interview.
Offerman, Pasteur, Moalie Jose, Rod McMillion, Makeda Scott and then-student member Omer Reshid voted in favor. Henn, Causey, Mack, Russell Keuhn and Lily Rowe opposed.
The vote for Causey, then the board chair, also failed. But the vote was 5-6. Those who had backed Pasteur in the previous vote opposed Causey. And those who had opposed Pasteur voted in favor of Causey.
The board’s lawyer at the time, Andy Nussbaum, said the Code of Maryland Regulations, also known as COMAR, states “any action taken by any county board of education must have the concurrence of the majority of the whole board.” He said the “whole board” in Baltimore County is 12 members, so a majority would be seven. At the time of the vote, there was a vacancy on the board because former member Roger Hayden had died a few months prior. Despite the vacancy, Nussbaum said seven was still the majority. And despite Pasteur having more votes, Causey remained the board chair.
Pasteur said she does not agree with this method of voting and that the board should stick with Robert’s Rules.
Pasteur left the board in February to run for a House of Delegates seat. She said she isn’t sure whether she would still be on the school board if she had been elected chair. She did say, however, that she had been planning to run again until the District 11A seat became available. She also said she has an idea of how the board would have been under her leadership.
“I would like to think I would have brought a different tone to the board,” she said. “When you find a board … not talking about children every meeting, then you find something wrong.”
The same happened for the vice chair election. Jose nominated McMillion and Mack nominated Henn. Henn was the vice chair at the time.
The vote for McMillion failed 6-5. The votes were identical to the votes to choose Pasteur as chair. The vote for Henn also failed 5-6 and mimicked the earlier votes for Causey.
The auditor’s contract
Barr’s contract would have been approved when the board chair called a vote at a special closed meeting May 17. Board members Jose, Scott, McMillion, Offerman, Erin Hager and then-student member Christian Thomas voted in favor of the contract renewal. None opposed. Causey, Mack and Henn abstained from the vote while Kuehn and Rowe recused themselves. None gave reasons why. But the board chair said the contract renewal had not been approved.
Barr, a 36-year county employee who had issued reports critical of the board’s budgetary practices, sued the board and was granted a preliminary injunction after a two-day hearing. It allowed Barr to keep her job until the court can hold a trial on the merits of the case. A hearing has not yet been scheduled.
Adding audit position
The board would have created a full-time position in the Internal Audit Office that reported to the board. But a Feb. 11, 2020 vote to redirect $120,000 to the office failed. Kuehn, Henn, Causey, Mack and Rowe voted in favor, and McMillion opposed. Pasteur and Scott abstained while Offerman and Jose were absent.
High school construction
Towson, Dulaney and Lansdowne high schools would have received planning and design money in the fiscal 2020 capital budget. It was voted on during a work session on Jan. 22, 2019 and failed despite the vote being 5-1. In this case, backers would have needed six votes to pass because the student member could not participate.
Rowe, Kuehn, Henn, Mack and Causey voted in favor, while Hayden opposed. Pasteur, Jose, McMillion, Scott and Offerman abstained.
The board would have had a discussion about the budget transfers and their impact on curriculum during the most recent board meeting. Jose wanted to add it to the agenda. But the vote failed despite six members voting in favor and four against.
Jose, Scott, McMillion, Offerman, recent appointee Felicia Stolusky and new student member Roah Hassan voted in favor. Causey, Kuehn, Rowe and Hager opposed. Henn and Mack were absent.
The board would have added a new English curriculum during its June 14 meeting. Thomas made a motion to approve a five-year contract for an elementary English language arts curriculum, which includes the purchase of materials, for $10 million. The vote was 5-4 to make the change, but it failed.
Jose, McMillion, Thomas, Offerman and Scott voted in favor. Causey, Mack, Hager and Henn opposed. Rowe and Kuehn were absent.
However, the board later approved a plan to continue the curriculum’s pilot program at a few schools.
Examining budget issues
The board could have had a budget committee back in November 2020. The idea was for the panel to examine issues stemming from the operating and capital budgets, as well as to ensure maximum resources were allocated to schools so all student groups were supported. Henn wanted the board to direct the superintendent to provide staffing and support to the committee. The recommendation failed despite drawing the support of 6 of 10 members.
Hager, Kuehn, Henn, Mack, Rowe and Causey voted in favor. Offerman, Jose, McMillion and Scott were opposed. Pasteur and then-student board member Joshua Muhumuza abstained.