3/17/12 Board changes how it talks to public

Board changes how it talks to public
New policy allows for more back-and-forth during meetings
By Mike Wilder The Times-News 3/17/12     
Reprinted with permission.

   At least on a trial basis, the Alamance-Burlington Board of Education will change how its meetings are conducted.

   That’s in an attempt to increase communication among the school board, system administrators and members of the public.

   The discussion began when the Rev. Edward McDowell attended the board’s Feb. 27 meeting. During the public comments section of the meeting, McDowell said there’s no opportunity for the public “to have any dialogue with the schools … not even in the work sessions.” The work sessions are relatively informal meetings the board typically has once a month. They are often used for more in-depth discussions before the board acts on items during its meetings on the fourth Monday of each month.

   People who want to address the board are given three minutes each (the limit is usually not strictly enforced) during the board’s more structured meetings. The board’s standard practice is to avoid responding to people during the meetings.

   “There are times we need to be able to ask questions and receive answers,” McDowell said.

   Examples of those questions, he said, include examining whether the Alamance-Burlington Schools needed a new system-wide athletic director and finding out why students sometimes don’t have books to take home. Not all students have computers at home to use in place of textbooks, he said.

   McDowell said people with concerns and suggestions should be able to give input into decisions the board makes, rather than getting “three minutes to blow steam off our chest.”

   “I know you want to include the public,” McDowell said, asserting “there has to be dialogue” for that to happen.    Board chairwoman Jackie Cole noted the superintendent or another system administrator typically does follow up with people after the meetings they attend.

   McDowell renewed his request during a subsequent work sessions, leading board members to discuss holding periodic forums as well as changing how meetings are run. The change involves shifting comments by the superintendent and board members from before to after members of the public speak. That would allow a school board member or the superintendent to give a response, if they believed it to be appropriate, to what someone said during the public comment period.

   Board attorney Trey Allen urged the board to be cautious in order to avoid discussing topics not on meeting agendas. The system is required to publicize agendas and the items on them before meetings are held.

   During a subsequent work session held Monday, board members disagreed on whether they had decided to move the public comments section on a trial basis or whether they had simply discussed the issue. Board member Tony Rose said the board had made that decision and questioned why the minutes of the previous work session did not reflect that. Board member Steve Van Pelt said he thought the minutes were correct and moved that the board accept them as written.

   The board voted to clarify what happened in a way that shifts the public comment section to before the superintendent and board comments. Voting to do that were Brad Evans, Kristen Moffitt, Patsy Simpson and Rose. Voting against were Mary Erwin and Van Pelt. Cole didn’t vote. Sometimes the board’s chairwoman votes and sometimes she does not.