By TOM LoBIANCO
Amid the chaos and fighting that has become Indiana’s Board of Education meetings of late, the question has popped up: Why not follow Robert’s Rules of Order?
The dry, technical guidebook used to govern the vast majority of public meetings across the nation at all levels of government is conspicuously absent at State Board of Education meetings. Instead, Republican Gov. Mike Pence and Democratic Schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz agreed on a different set of rules for running meetings this past May.
Order and procedure are often taken for granted in typically staid public meetings, but the state board meetings have become calamitous events. When Pence and Ritz, who share control of the education board, agreed on the different set of rules, there was clear tension but nothing like the strife that erupted last week. Even before Ritz abruptly ended the meeting Wednesday and walked out, the warring parties had already been talking over each other, taking action on items without approval and fighting for control of each meeting.
At times, the board has felt more like Britain’s House of Commons than a subdued Midwestern panel — although the lack of witticisms and laughter is glaring.
“I think the entire point of these parliamentary procedures is to prevent entropy and chaos,” said Ashlyn Nelson, a professor of housing and education policy at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs.
Robert’s Rules are the creation of Henry Martyn Robert, an Army officer who published his book on parliamentary procedure in 1876 based off the rules used by the U.S. House of Representatives. Since publication, the guidebook has become the most frequently used set of rules for public meetings in America.
In the absence of those rules, Nelson said, public meetings could drag on forever, committee members could talk over each other, actions could be proposed and dismissed arbitrarily. And those have become routine occurrences at the state education board meetings recently.
Ritz often declines to recognize board members for comment, yet they speak over her anyway. Some of her tensest exchanges have come with Dan Elsener, who has repeatedly called on one of Pence’s education lawyers to speak at meetings, over Ritz’s objections. Earlier this month, Ritz’s board lawyer and Pence’s board lawyer subtly elbowed each other for room at the microphone in front of the board.
The dueling education departments — Ritz’s Department of Education and Pence’s Center for Education and Career and Innovation — even draw up separate agendas for the board meetings.
Robert’s Rules usually act more often like an umpire or referee, more part of the backdrop of the sport of politics than the focus. But its absence, at least for the state board, has become glaring. Were the rules used, it’s likely both sides in the education war would have a few clear wins and losses.
Board members have begun openly complaining about Ritz’s refusal to place their requested items on the agenda for formal consideration at meetings, one of the many areas Robert’s Rules covers.
Brad Oliver, who offered the motion that ultimately spurred Ritz’s departure from last week’s meeting, said he has tried for weeks to get his motion dealing with Common Core assessment standards heard.
“I have tried since early August to get information from Superintendent Ritz on the process the board would follow to evaluate standards. Emails have not been returned. During board meetings, we were given partial information [e.g., committee rosters] but never provided an opportunity as a board to express how the evaluation of standards should be conducted,” wrote Oliver, who also serves as an education professor at Indiana Wesleyan University, in a detailed account of his struggles with Ritz’s department.
For her part, under Robert’s Rules, Ritz would have a stronger grasp on the flow of each meeting. She has often repeatedly been forced to state “I am the chair!” when board members speak over her. The rules set clear procedures for allowing the chair to recognize who will speak.
Without Robert’s Rules, or even any sort of basic agreement on the alternative rules they established in their place, Ritz and Pence’s staff have been unable to agree whether she ended the meeting or not last week. Department of Education staffers say the alternative rules they agreed to mean Ritz ended the meeting when she walked out, but Pence staffers say she lacks the power to singlehandedly end a meeting.
There’s little chance a simple set of rules would end the power struggle between Pence and Ritz, but it would tamp down some of the wilder moments of each meeting.