Some school board members favor new rules for comments at meetings

September 12, 2012|By JULIE E. GREENE |

HAGERSTOWN — When school nurses spoke up at a Washington County Board of Education meeting earlier this summer, board members should have waited until the end of their meeting to respond to the nurses’ concerns and questions about the future of the school system’s health services program for students.

School Board President Wayne Ridenour broke policy at that June meeting, telling the audience during the meeting’s “Citizens Participation” segment that students’ safety was paramount to board members and that board members would not compromise students’ care or education.

“I overstepped my bounds, but it was one of those where I really felt I needed to say something from the chair,” Ridenour said Wednesday.

The nursing situation was “kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Board Vice President Jacqueline Fischer, the chairwoman of the board’s Policy Committee.

“It’s been an ongoing issue, but it really peaked with the nurses,” Fischer said Wednesday.

After that June meeting, board members asked the committee to review the policy that prevents them from immediately answering citizens’ questions or reacting to their comments.

That policy could change as early as the board’s Oct. 16 meeting.

Several board members appeared to favor a proposed policy, discussed during a work session Tuesday, that would provide board members time to comment on what the public says shortly after public comments, and also reorganizes the agenda so members of the public don’t have to sit through the entire meeting to wait for the board to vote on its business.

The board is expected to vote on a first reading of the proposed policy at its 6 p.m. meeting Sept. 18.

After the board tabled a vote on the first reading of a proposed new policy Aug. 21, Fischer brought a revised proposed policy to the Sept. 11 work session that several board members appeared to favor.

“We could always speak to what was said during public participation, but we had to wait” until “Board Member Comments” at the end of the meeting, Ridenour said.

Often people who comment during citizens’ participation leave before the end of the meeting.

Fischer’s proposal reorganizes the order of the meeting and creates a time after public comments in which board members, if they wish, can comment on what members of the public said.

Each board member would have up to three minutes to comment, according to the proposed policy.

The proposal changes the name of citizens participation to “Public Comment” and moves that segment to earlier in the meeting, before the board would hear any reports or vote on old or new business. Public comment would occur after the board votes on approval of prior meetings’ minutes, according to the proposed new policy.

Board member Karen Harshman said moving the segment up in the meeting might not give people enough time to get to the meeting after work so they can speak during public comment.

Fischer said if people complain about not being able to make it to the meeting in time to speak to the board during public comments, the board will consider moving the meeting start time back.

Currently, the board’s first monthly business meeting, on the first Tuesday of the month, starts at 1 p.m. and the second monthly meeting, on the third Tuesday of the month, starts at 6 p.m.

Schools Superintendent Clayton Wilcox said that schedule provides business people with an opportunity to address the board at the early meeting and members of the public an opportunity to address the board during the evening meeting.

Either group can address the board at both meetings.

Wilcox told the board Tuesday that school system officials could do a better job of scheduling issues important to citizens for the evening meeting and more routine matters for the day meeting.

The proposed policy moves old and new business, which usually results in board votes, up in the meeting so it begins after the board can comment on public comments.

That would be followed by the superintendent’s report, personnel action and reports to the board.

The proposal still allows for board members to make comments just before the end of the meeting.

Harshman said she wanted more opportunities for the public to comment during meetings, but some board members expressed concern that so many public comment opportunities could disrupt the meeting.

“I see that as being a major disruption to the flow of a business-type meeting,” board member Paul Bailey said.

The public has several ways it can reach board members, including by email and phone, Bailey said.

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