Because the policy committee of the West Hartford Board of Education made significant changes to an updated policy on conducting meetings and public comment, a first reading was held Tuesday night and the second reading will occur before a vote.
By Ronnie Newton
The West Hartford Board of Education plans to update its public comment policy to ensure members of the community who wish to testify on agenda items are given priority speaking privileges before the business portion of a meeting begins. A first reading of the updated Policy 8355 “Meeting Conduct/Public Comment” was held on September 6, but because significant changes were made to that draft following two recent meetings of the Board’s Policy Committee, the new policy was reinstated Tuesday night for the first read .
While the changes to the policy’s proposed wording were significant enough to justify reintroducing the updates for a first reading, Education Committee chair Lorna Thomas-Farquharson said the intent of the policy update has not changed. The last proposed update relates to the comment period prior to the business portion of the meeting in terms of the number of speakers and not a time limit. It states that no more than 10 people are allowed to speak during the first comment period, instead of setting a limit of 30 minutes. The existing policy of limiting each speaker to three minutes during each comment period remains unchanged.
During the first comment period, a maximum of seven speakers per topic are permitted – but this only applies to items that are not on the agenda. The number of speakers per topic who may address the Education Council during the first comment period is no longer limited, provided that their comments relate to items on the agenda.
The second public comment period, which occurs at the end of Education Committee meetings, will not change. Speakers during the first comment period will continue to have up to three additional minutes to speak at the end of the session.
Board member Ethan Goldman, a Republican, had raised concerns about changes to the comment policy when it was introduced last month and had asked Anne McKernan, acting assistant superintendent for administration, for some statistics on the number of speakers at meetings and speakers had spoken about the postponement of the start of the business part of the board meetings.
McKernan’s September written introduction to the proposed change said: “Recently, the public comment period has sometimes been consumed by comment on matters not relevant to the Board’s agenda, and extended public comment periods have significantly delayed the commencement of the business segment some board meetings. Concerns have been expressed that such delays are unfair to those waiting to comment on agenda items or to other members of the public interested in the Board’s deliberations and actions on agenda items. It can also be unfair to people who want to comment on agenda items before final action is taken.”
McKernan said Tuesday that over the course of the 2021-2022 academic year, there were 154 speakers who addressed the West Hartford Board of Education for a total of 462 minutes. That was a significant increase from last year when there were 37 speakers for 111 minutes. Not counting last year, there have been an average of 37 speakers a year for the past four years, she said.
McKernan also reviewed the public comment policies of other Hartford-area education boards. “West Hartford appears to have one of the highest levels of public speaking,” she said, which may be due in part to the board holding two meetings a month, with two public comment opportunities available at each time. Some city education committees meet only once a month, and there are a number of restrictions on the time and number of speakers allowed. “We certainly have one of the most generous opportunities,” she said, noting that she couldn’t find another nearby district with greater public comment.
Two topics made up the majority of comments in 2021-2022, McKernan said, with 37 of the 154 speakers addressing the topic of high school nicknames and mascots — which has been an agenda item at several board meetings — and 46 speakers addressing the social and emotional topic learning (SEL).
In recent years, there have been controversial issues discussed by the board — including school start times and the change in district calendar holidays from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day — but not nearly as many speakers.
Goldman said he remains concerned that not everyone will have an opportunity to address the board at the start of the meeting. Disallowing comments “looks like you’re hiding something,” he said. And although a vote will not take place until the second reading, Goldman said he strongly opposes the new public comment policy.
“I really feel like this policy is just prioritizing,” Democrat Ari Steinberg said. She said it makes sense to allow people to speak on issues that will be the subject of a vote so their voices can be heard, rather than having them wait until a vote has taken place. The new policy “allows agenda prioritization but doesn’t silence anyone,” she said.
Republican Gayle Harris, who serves on the board’s policy committee along with Thomas-Farquharson and Democrat Jason Chang, said she thinks the proposed change is a “good trade-off to hear the public and be aware that we’re doing it.” hold a meeting”. recognizes the need to hear from the public, but also respects those who attend board meetings and may have young children or other time constraints. “Is it a perfect policy, probably not…” Harris said.
“This is a policy that doesn’t dictate what people can say or if they can tell us something, just when,” Chang said, noting that there is unlimited public comment on agenda items.
The board has a policy committee to recommend changes, said vice chair Deb Polun. If the change in the comment period does not work, “nothing is set in stone here”. Polun said she thinks the language of the policy update reviewed Tuesday is much simpler than what the board discussed in September.
Draft Policy 8355, which would replace the existing Policy 8355, which has been in effect since 1994, also addresses conduct at gatherings. The wording checked on Tuesday evening reads as follows:
The Board welcomes public comment as it provides an opportunity for members of the public to express their views to the Board on matters within the Board’s purview. Any member of the public who wishes to speak may address the Board for three minutes at the beginning and end of each meeting, for a total of six minutes during the Board’s two public comment periods. Persons who comment on items on the agenda are initially permitted to comment. No more than ten persons are permitted to speak during the public speaking time at the beginning of the meeting, provided that this limit does not apply to persons speaking on agenda items. A maximum of seven people may comment on each topic.
No one shall interrupt a meeting or render impossible the proper conduct of such a meeting, and the Chair may order the removal of any person engaging in such conduct.
While the board does not respond to comments in the public meeting, it will consider such comments in its policy deliberations and, where appropriate, will forward comments to school department staff for review as part of their administrative responsibilities.
The last sentence of the first paragraph will be discussed further by the board’s policy committee, Chang said in response to a question from We-Ha.com, to ensure the policy is clear and the “maximum of seven people” does not apply on issues that are an item on the agenda.
The board has not scheduled a second reading and vote on the revised policy.
Ahead of Tuesday’s meeting, a group of three Conard students representing the school’s SAVE club, along with six others, addressed the board during the public comment period. Two speakers – Tracey Wilson and Beth Bye – expressed their support for the new Public Comment Policy to prioritize communications on policy matters voted on by the Board.
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