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Editorial: Discussion, not discord at first board meeting

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There was no shortage of uncertainty heading in to the first Farmington School Board meeting of 2009. Many feared the arrival of three new board members, one an outspoken critic of past boards, would mean a divided group incapable of getting anything done. Departed board member Terry Donnelly, elected in November to a seat on the city council, said last month he nearly turned down his new position out of concern over what might happen with the new board.

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Through one meeting, though, things appear to be working pretty well.

There were disagreements, to be sure. Board members differed Monday on the salary they should receive for the coming year and on the question of whether they should be reimbursed for attending conferences and conventions farther than a short commute from Farmington. But the disagreements were always handled with civil discussion. And while that discussion caused Monday's meeting to push on well beyond the length of most such start-of-the-year organizational meetings there was some clear value in it.

Speaking Tuesday, new board member Julie Singewald acknowledge the difference between expectation and reality. She said she was a little surprised by how smoothly her first meeting went.

"I would be the first to say I was hesitant but hopeful that it was going to go the way it did," Singewald said.

Monday's meeting was the most substantial public discussion we've seen in a long time by board members about the things board members do and the reasons they do them. Tim Burke, that longtime critic, brought a series of proposed changes and found, in place of the often silent or defensive board that greeted him when he spoke from the audience, colleagues who disagreed with him on many points but embraced others. For his part, Burke sounded less accusatory than he sometimes did when he was on the other side of the table.

There were few firm decisions on the policies discussed Monday but this week's discussions could ultimately lead to a change in the structure of board meetings.

Whatever comes of them, we believe there is value in the kinds of discussions held Monday night. Much of the discussion we have seen at past board meetings has come from board members questioning staff members. That is important too, but it doesn't always give us the best glimpse into the board's decision making process. Monday's meeting did that.

The discord some fear might still show up somewhere down the line. There are plenty of big issues about which these board members can disagree. But through at least one meeting there was no sign of it. We find that plenty encouraging.

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