Conejo School Board in Row Over Rules

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Personal politics often make their way into Thousand Oaks City Council meetings, where regulars are known to tell family and friends they are going to the "Tuesday Night Fights."

Planning Commission sessions, where members occasionally chastise each other on the podium, are slightly better-behaved.

And now some members of the Conejo Valley Unified School District board have joined the fray.

In a heated confrontation Thursday night, two trustees stormed out of a meeting after a fight about Robert's Rules of Order. The issue: Which should come first, a vote on an agenda item, or a motion to change the item?

The latest brouhaha follows a rift earlier this year when two of the more moderate board members unsuccessfully voted against making school board President Mildred Lynch their leader.

Whatever the reason, Thursday's dispute spurred Lynch and trustee Elaine McKearn to stalk off the dais and eventually leave the meeting.

Lynch and McKearn had hoped to vote first on whether to continue a program called Celebration of Excellence, which honors students for academic achievement.

But trustee Dolores Didio wanted to change the agenda item, dividing one of the six achievement categories into two.

And Assistant Supt. Jody Dunlap, who was serving as parliamentarian, said Didio had the right to attempt to change the item before a vote.

That caused Lynch and McKearn to leave the dais. They sat together, side by side, in the front row of the audience.

Minutes later, Lynch filled out a public speaker's card.

When her name was called, Lynch berated the board. "What's the point of having an agenda if you're going to change it?" she said from the speaker's podium, far from her presidential perch.

Her actions shocked the few people seated in the audience, many of whom were shaking their heads in disbelief.

"I thought we were at a City Council meeting," whispered one woman to a friend.

Soon afterward, Lynch and McKearn, disgusted with their colleagues, got up and went home, leaving the three remaining board members to finish off the agenda.

The results on the achievement awards went Lynch's way: The ceremony will continue with only six categories, with vocational and artistic achievements remaining in a single category.

Trustee Dorothy Beaubien said the squabble was unusual.

"We've always prided ourselves on a good rapport," she said. "We're all there for the same reason, for the kids."

But McKearn sees it another way.

"It's been like this since December, after Mrs. Didio and Mrs. Beaubien were reelected," she said. "They totally disregard me, and they also didn't want Mrs. Lynch to be president."

McKearn said Didio and Beaubien are continually chipping away at Lynch's power, claiming both of the women had wanted to be the president themselves.

While Didio countered that a rebellion effort was far from the truth, she conceded she did not want Lynch to become president in December. That was because Lynch, for the first time in her 11 years as trustee, made an endorsement--of Didio's challenger.

"I didn't feel that the support was there from her," Didio said, adding that she had hoped the two of them had moved on from that incident.

But McKearn said she is not so sure that hurt feelings have been eased.

She described an earlier closed session Thursday as a "shouting match" in which trustees argued over whether to make middle schools mandatory or optional for sixth-graders.

While McKearn was willing to characterize some of the behavior Thursday as immature, her actions were not, she said. "Sometimes you have to stand up for your principles and make a protest. It was sort of like we were giving a protest."

But the walkout did not impress Cheryl Heitmann, a regular attendant and a parent volunteer.

"I was really surprised," she said. "I've always taught my kids that when you feel strongly about something and want to negotiate, you have to stay and listen to what the opposing side is saying. I didn't feel there wasn't any active listening going on."

While Heitmann said she has noticed over the years that there has been some philosophical differences, she had never witnessed anyone leaving.

But she quickly added that the school board should not be compared with the bickering City Council.

"Being a Thousand Oaks resident, that's the first thing you think of: 'Oh gosh, I don't want it to become like that.' "

The council's fracases included an incident in which one council member responded with a clucking sound after her colleagues voted down one of her proposals. Planning commissioners, meanwhile, have been known to publicly apologize for or chastise each other.

Trustee Richard "Dick" Newman, who usually takes the middle line, was obviously dismayed with the display of some of his fellow board members.

He was especially peeved after he and the two remaining trustees were forced to vote--without their colleagues--to award Viola Inc. of Oxnard a $6.6-million contract to build the new Lang Ranch Elementary School.

"Should we assume that they've resigned?" he asked. "Have we any idea why they have absented themselves? This is not an example of the community getting served. Board members are not elected to sit in the audience."

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