The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s sudden adjournment last week looks to be on the way to becoming a campaign issue in 2023.
At its regular meeting, BESE rapidly plowed through a number of items witnessed by a much larger than usual audience. A large portion of the attendees didn’t wear masks, in apparent violation of a proclamation by Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards ordering face coverings be worn in state office buildings, which included where BESE meets.
After a nearly hour-and-half foray into executive session to discuss the performance of Superintendent Cade Brumley, the body reconvened in public. At that time, Republican Ronnie Morris reminded the audience that matters had to remain orderly or the meeting would be adjourned.
This came several items before the last on the agenda – a consideration, recommended by staff, that BESE overturn Edwards’ masking order based upon an attorney general’s opinion interpreting the Constitution. During the items previous to that, occasionally an audience member would shout out to say they couldn’t hear members speaking through masks or other extraneous comments. Throughout, other audience members kept making shushing sounds whenever it seemed background murmuring became too loud.
Yet the audience remained skeptical when it was announced the matter would start with testimony from unidentified “medical professionals.” Given that such individuals working for or allied with the state because of the large state payments made to their organizations consistently have downplayed or ignored data that contradicts Edwards’ policies – last week the latest research revealed the most commonly-worn kind of surgical mask blocks only 10 percent of exhalation and even the medical grade N95 variety stops just half – such doubt was warranted.
Perceiving a fix to be in, the audience began to become more argumentative, although many motioned for the audience to hold their tongues. While the majority of the audience continued to keep their faces uncovered, with the exception of when a speaker criticized proposed social studies curriculum changes that would introduce action civics into Louisiana standards that drew applause, silence reigned as other items were dealt with.
But the crowd became restive when an attempt was made to adjourn for lunch, before 11:15. That was followed immediately by a motion from Republican Holly Boffy to adjourn because too much of the audience didn’t wear a mask – despite that having been the case throughout the entire day and audience pleas that they would wear masks, although some became agitated. Shortly thereafter, with only Republicans James Garvey and Michael Melerine opposing, the motion succeeded.
At best, the move seemed an inept shirking of duty handled it in a way to appear they were ducking the issue. At worst, they did duck the issue, abdicating responsibility and justifying it by suddenly and selectively becoming concerned about mask-wearing among a not-unruly crowd for political reasons.
Afterwards, at least one state legislator vented frustration through a letter to the members who voted against resuming the meeting. Republican state Rep. Alan Seabaugh accused them of political cowardice which he hoped would result in their losing reelection if so sought. Present at the meeting, GOP state Rep. Larry Frieman thought whatever unrest did occur was at the encouragement of Edwards’ executive counsel Matthew Block, also there.
Two Democrats, the elected Kira Orange Jones and appointed Belinda Davis, publicly defended punting. Jones repeated the mistaken notion that mask mandates – contrary to volumes of research – do anything more than trivially cut down on transmission. Davis maintained audience behavior cost the item’s consideration – a craven excuse for dereliction of duty, considering the many alternatives the board could have pursued to fulfill its obligation, such as briefly adjourning to clear the room of those not wearing masks.
However, the strongest evidence that a majority intended to dodge the issue, if not essentially defeat it as wished by Davis and other Edwards appointees, came this week when BESE’s officers – Republican Sandy Holloway, Jones, and the GOP’s Ashley Ellis – released a statement attempting spiritedly if not very convincingly to defend the adjournment before completing its duty, and said it would not bring up the matter again. Especially GOP members Holloway, Morris, Ellis, and Boffy should expect their vote to become a campaign issue exemplifying a profile of spinelessness and avoidance of accountability.