House OKs remote school board meeting attendance

Friday, March 23, 2012, Vol. 36, No. 12

NASHVILLE (AP) - The House on Thursday passed a bill to allow school board members to participate in meetings remotely, despite concerns that the practice could spread to other elected bodies in the future.

The bill sponsored by House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh was approved on a 58-35 vote. The Ripley Democrat said the measure would only allow school board members to participate in a meeting electronically if they were out of the country for work, on military service or attending to a family emergency.

"In a situation where for instance some member of the school board has a sick mother in Chattanooga and is faced with being at her side rather than at the meeting of the school board, it gives them the opportunity to do their duty," he said.

Fitzhugh said the bill is necessary because some school boards already allow remote attendance and proxy voting without any state guidelines in place. He stressed that it would be up to the loca l school boards to determine their own policies on what constitutes a legitimate family emergency and whether member attending remotely would be paid.

Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Savannah was skeptical of allowing such leeway.

"If we pass this every school board would jump in there and make a very lax and very open way for them having to avoid to be there," he said.

Opponents of the measure said they worry that other elected bodies like county commissions, the city councils and even the Legislature could one day try to follow suit, and several argued that a physical presence to be a fundamental requisite to casting a vote.

"There is a value in my mind when we're sitting down to make policy or have a vote on an issue that may be a difficult issue for the people of the state or the people of that local community ... and look them in the eye when they cast that vote," said Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Savannah. "We take that away when we do this."

Rep. Joey Hensle y, R-Hohenwald, said he was on the local school board for 12 years and only missed one meeting.

"If we allow them to attend and vote electronically, they're not facing the public," he said. "People run for office and they know what the job entails."

Fellow Republican Rep. Frank Niceley of Strawberry Plains agreed.

"If you're on the school board and you can't make it downtown to be in a school board meeting you don't need to run next time," he said.

Democratic Rep. Johnny Shaw of Bolivar said he didn't understand the resistance to the measure and the emphasis on being present to vote, especially since lawmakers often ask their colleagues to vote for them when they are away from the seats during a floor session,

"In many cases we do the very same thing every day that we want to say we won't allow anyone else to do," he said. "I'm guilty of ... walking out of this chamber occasionally and saying, 'Would you vote for me?'"

Fitzhugh acknowledged that other elected bodies like the General Assembly could seek to allow electronic meetings in the future.

"At one point in time this video thing will be so refined that we may be able to have a session where we're able to be in our home counties," he said. "I'm not advocating that, I won't live that long, but think some day possibly we might."

The Senate earlier passed an earlier version of the bill on a 26-6 vote, but would have to approve minor changes made by the House before the bill could head for the governor's consideration.