I covered my first Fairfax County School Board meeting in September of 1979. I cannot recall the precise date of the meeting or what was discussed, but psychiatrists will tell you that human beings have a defense mechanism that blocks out painful memories so they will not torture themselves with the unpleasant past.
The one thing I do remember was that as I emerged from the stuffy meeting room -- in the wee hours of the morning -- I was shaking my head in disbelief and repeating over and over: "This is democracy in action?"
I had discovered that covering the "school beat" is a sort of aerobic training for reporters. It teaches you endurance.It teaches you how to keep your eyes open and appear awake, even if you have been sitting before the board for five hours. It teaches you to feign interest in award-winning school bands, school boundaries and endless slide shows.
After attending approximately 40 school board meetings, I can say with certainty that one thing common to every meeting was that it was long.
The meetings rarely broke up much before midnight and sometimes continued into the morning.
The meetings are not long because important business is being transacted -- although school boards (and the Fairfax School Board in particular) do handle many important issues.
School board meetings are long because school board members like to talk.
For instance, during the 1979-1980 school year many, if not most, school board decisions were unanimous. You would think that a board which was in agreement on most issues would have quickly wrapped up discussion on matters then moved to the inevitable unanimous vote.
You must first understand the psyche of most school board members. School board members like to go on the record. When one board member says something with which other board members agree, the board does not say "amen" in unison and take a vote. No way. Instead, hands fly in the air as most board members take a turn to say he or she agrees, only in a slightly different way from the previous speaker.
Reporters have long suspected that the most interesting discussions are going on before their eyes, but out of earshot. It didn't take long to notice the almost constant note passing and whispering among school board members and the frequent, and sometimes lengthly, caucusing around the hidden coffee machine (from which reporters recently were banned). The note-passing, whispering and kaffee klasches seem to be the forums where school board decisions are made and arguments are settled, leaving just formal votes to be taken in public meetings.
With the addition of three new members during the summer of 1980, the Fairfax County School board became less unanimous.The discussions took on a more entertaining tone, but became even longer.
A major pastime among the yawning reporters who covered the meetings last year was placing bets on how long the meeting would last.
I couldn't really complain about the length of school board meetings (although I usually did) because I was being paid to sit there. But I used to look with pity at the audience, especially first-timers who would often ask, as their eyes glazed over, "Are these meetings always like this?"
To give the school board credit, the chairman would often move an item up on the agenda if there was a large number of people interested in hearing the discussion or if the issue seemed to be of major importance.
But often, the board delayed crucial issues until very late in the meeting -- such as the night budget decisions began about 11 p.m., over the objections of two school board members, and ended about 1:30 a.m.
In New Jersey, state legislators have recognized the limits of public endurance by passing a law that forbids any public body from taking a vote on any issue after midnight.
I have no doubt that my successor will learn as much endurance and patience, and lose as much sleep, as I did covering the Fairfax School Board.
But since these are public meetings, it seems that some accommodations should be made so members of the public, those most affected by crucial school board decisions, have at least had a chance of being there -- and being awake -- when those decisions are made.
Perhaps the important issues could routinely be moved to the front of the school board agenda. And the superintendent's report, the last item, which sometimes includes vital information, could be among the first.
And perhaps, like New Jerseyites, Virginians could insist that midnight be the deadline for taking any public vote.