The school board implemented a new public participation policy that allows for public comments at the beginning of the meeting. It consists of five minutes of speaking time per person and three people per side of an issue.
“We used to [allow public participation] at the beginning [of the meeting] … then we would also allow comments during discussion and then we would also allow comments at the end,” said Paru Shah, school board president. “And so what we’ve done is essentially move all the comments to one part at just the beginning.”
According to Shah, the policy was changed to increase the board’s productivity and the community’s involvement.
“[The change] stemmed from a lot of factors, but the one that kind of was the head was the fact that it felt like the board wasn’t getting the work done, and then the community felt like they weren’t being heard,” Shah said.
However, not everyone thought the policy needed to be changed.
“I think there was a feeling that [the board meetings] were out of control somehow,” said Davida Amenta, village trustee. “When you look at the old policy, there was in place all of the tools they needed to limit debate, to limit the time each person can speak, to end discussion. All that authority was there, it just wasn’t being used.”
Some of the public perceived the change as a way to silence their voice.
“To me, it was presented as the public is out of control, we can’t have meetings like this so we’re going to shut out the public so that we can have our meetings,” said Allison Abbott, resident. “I think the change is fine, the change makes sense … To me, where the anger, where the frustration is, is how it was done … Even when they were discussing that policy they decided not to have any comments so it just seems a little abrupt. Like in any kind of politics I think there could have been more effort made to make a transition or to mend the relationship first and then have a new policy.”
“I didn’t expect the public to perceive it as they did which was that we were somehow punishing them for talking too much because that’s not what we want to do,” Shah said. “I think there were a lot of hurt feelings and resentment when it first came out and I’ve been trying to kind of explain that that’s not what our intention was.”
Community members interested in a specific topic can form groups called linkages, which the board will meet with twice a year to discuss that topic. The board has scheduled meetings with 18 different linkages.
“So we actually just then have community conversations but in much greater depth around particular topics with community members who are interested about that but not at the board meeting. We reserve stuff at the board meeting for things that we need to make decisions on, not getting information about,” Shah said.
Amenta said the linkages and the board’s encouragement to communicate via email is different from speaking at a public meeting.
“There’s a lot to be said for people being in the same room and talking,” Abbott said. “We all bring different perspectives. Everybody brings different eyes, different experience, different expertise”
Sarah McEneany, resident, thinks this engagement will come through the linkages.
“I’m actually hopeful that the public participation will become more diverse voices [and] represent the 1,700 children the school board are serving, via the linkages,” McEneany said.
Shah hopes the new policy will increase the board’s communication with the public.
“So if nothing else,” Shah said. “I think all of us feel like we’re actually having real conversations and real dialog with community members.”
Amenta expressed concern regarding the fact that only three people may speak on the same side of an issue.
“They will only hear three people on any side of an issue. And that’s, I think, very ambiguous. Sometimes it’s not really one side or the other — it’s an octagon,” Amenta said.
Shah said the board has never prohibited someone from speaking and that this will allow the board to avoid repetition in comments if necessary.
According to Shah, Wisconsin law does not require public comments at school board meetings. These are board meetings held in public.
“Board meetings are not a place to have long conversations with community members,” Shah said.
McEneany agrees. “The board can’t do business unless it’s doing business in public, but if they’re constantly responding to the public they can’t get their work done,” McEneany said. “Our school board meetings were morphing into public meetings.”
Amenta said participation in meetings is important.
“How many places are there that, as a member of the public, you can go and state what it is that’s bothering you? Not many. It’s really important for elected officials to hear what people have to say. So, closing themselves off, I think, is really regretful,” Amenta said.
by Sabine Peterka