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Legal Opinion: SPEAC Chair Was Wrong Quashing Motion

The in-house legal counsel of the Falls Church School Board issued an opinion this week that found the action chair of the Schools’ Special Education Advisory Committee last week – to deny a motion and second in the meeting – was “improper.”

Attorney Thomas W. Horn wrote that he reviewed a tape of the meeting and consulted with a registered professional parliamentarian before rending a two-page, single-spaced review and opinion.

In particular, the action by the Special Education Advisory Committee, or SPEAC, chair Becky Smerdon, a candidate for election to the School Board next week, was improper when she prevented action on a motion and second by board members to call for her resignation.

He cited Robert’s Rules of Order on the matter of a “motion to request leadership to step down effective immediately,” such that “a main motion that receives a second should be brought before the committee for discussion before moving to any other business.”

Horn said that “It appears that a main motion was offered and seconded” at last week’s meeting, “Without a ruling by the chair on the main motion, and without debate on the motion, the meeting moved into another order of business. This was improper.”

In the case of last week’s meeting which drew considerable controversy in the wake of the upcoming School Board election and Smerdon’s legal filing of a petition in the Arlington Circuit Court against the School Board, four parent members of the committee (parents of special needs students) called for a vote on the motion and second calling for Smerdon’s resignation. Smerdon ruled the action “out of order” and moved to the next item on the meeting’s agenda.

One citizen volunteer committee member then called for the committee to be dissolved because “the atmosphere had become so bad.”

Smerdon wrote a post online later that night claiming “a vote violates our committee by-laws and Robert’s Rules. But that claim was disputed by this week’s legal opinion by the Schools’ staff attorney, which the School Board’s John Lawrence, its liaison to the SPEAC, requested after last week’s meeting.

Even if a chair rules a motion out of order, “the committee could appeal the chair’s ruling, debate the chair’s ruling, and with a majority vote of the committee overturn the chair’s ruling,” Horn noted.

“Parliamentary procedure is a complex set of rules and this review is limited to the events as I saw them on the video,” Horn wrote. “The most important takeaway is that parliamentary rules should ensure that the will of the committee as a whole will rule, while respecting the rights of the minority view and each individual member.”

In a letter to the full School Board last week, Bronwen Rankin, a parent of a special needs child who supported the call for Smerdon’s resignation, saying that at the SPEAC meeting “five committee members cited difficulties in the leadership and climate of the meetings, making it hard to move forward as a productive group.”

Five of the seven parent members of the committee who spoke about the lack of collaboration in the leadership, lack of civility in the meetings, a feeling that if they spoke up in meetings they would be attacked, and feeling belittled by the leadership when opinions are expressed.”

Asked to respond to Rankin’s statement last week, Smerdon wrote to the News-Press, “As a school board candidate my focus encompasses a broad set of issues that affect our children, such a improving educational experiences for all students and supporting educator effectiveness. My candidacy is much more than one topic, as important as the topic is. The continued and critical focus on the SPEAC detracts focus from the knowledge and experience I have and, more importantly, from my mission to support change where I believe it is needed. It provides cover for those who do not want change and especially for those who do not wish to lose control, including the FCNP.”

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