The Examiner U-46 News Feed
Public comment process in U-46 may be altered
By Seth Hancock
The Board of Education in School District U-46 had a second consecutive four-plus hour meeting as members addressed public concerns on Monday, Sept. 26, and those concerns were largely ignored by the board and administration and even partially dismissed as not being part of the board’s work.
By a nearly two-to-one margin (37 to 21) of 58 public comments on Sept. 12, the public came out to voice its dissent to U-46 CEO Tony Sander’s decision to change the district’s practice on transgender bathroom and locker room access without public input.
In the second round of public input on Sept. 26, the dissent was even greater as 43 out of 53 spoke against the decision.
At the previous meeting the board’s majority, including the board’s president Donna Smith, threw their full support behind the decision and on Sept. 26 ignored the concerns.
Instead of addressing those concerns, Smith and board member Sue Kerr sprung on the board an idea of shortening the amount of time for public comments or relegating them to the end of meetings.
Although stating that public comments are “very important” to her, Smith said addressing those concerns are not a part of the board’s work as she said: “Our work is also very important, it’s very important.”
“I’m wondering if we can find a balance between the public comments and our work,” Smith said.
Smith added: “We have never done that because we respect our community, we really do, and our speakers.”
The public comments come before the board votes on items and before new business, and speakers are allotted three minutes.
Kerr also claimed that she does “appreciate hearing from people,” but her comfort comes before the public’s right to address the board because she doesn’t “function very well” later in the evening.
The board did approve the Fiscal Year 2017 budget by a 5-2 vote, Cody Holt and Jeanette Ward voting no, but is holding the administration accountable for its decisions not just as important board work?
Ward, who made the practice change public, does think that’s board work as she said after the meeting “public comments are important board business.”
Although members of the public also have jobs and may need to get up early for work, Kerr said the change is necessary for district staff that has to stick around through the public comments.
“I think we can accommodate staff without stifling the public, and I wouldn’t support a change like that,” Ward said. “Most of our meetings are not overwhelmed by public speakers, and when we have taken action that arouses public interest then we ought to sit here and listen to what they have to say.”
Smith replied: “I’m not asking to cut them short, I’m not asking to cut them off.”
Board member Veronica Noland also claimed the public’s concerns don’t need to be addressed as she said “there comes a certain point where the business that we really need to address becomes more difficult after 10 o’clock at night.”
Board member Traci Ellis said “I’m not functioning well when we start crucial business at 10:30, 11:30 at night” and something needs to be done “because this cannot continue.”
Holt said “everybody does have a right to address our board” and board member Phil Costello added “we want to hear the public period,” but both agreed with the majority that a change is reasonable.
Noland, who aligned herself with Ward’s detractors who have claimed her support has largely only been from outsiders, asked “why can’t we limit questions or comments to folks who live or work in U-46?” Smith replied that legally everyone has a right to speak.
The proposed changes discussed included cutting short public comments to two minutes if 20 or more people come to speak, but Costello said “people prepare their three minute speeches” and should be given the full time. The other idea was having an hour of comments early in the meeting and relegating the rest to the end of the meeting.
Ward said: “I don’t support moving them to the end. We report to the public, not the other way around and I think they shouldn’t have to sit here through the whole meeting if they don’t want to. They should be able to speak to us first.”
Kerr said: “I disagree. We’re doing the public’s business, so they should watch us doing their business actually.”
Ward continued her support for free speech for all as one of her supporters said a Facebook page, School District U-46-Uncensored which is not run by the district, “should never be allowed.”
Recently someone posted a personal blog of Ward’s to attack her for instilling her Christian values on her kids. Ward was accused of “teaching intolerance” to her children, and on another post on the page Christians were called terrorists.
Although appreciative of the supporter, Ward told The Examiner after the meeting “I do not advocate censoring anybody” and supported that page’s right to exist regardless of comments against her.
During the meeting, Ward said: “I’m very grateful for the concept and the right of free speech that we enjoy in our Constitutional Republic which, by the way was correctly stated (during public comments), is based on Biblical principles. Free speech allows people to quote the Bible if they wish, even at school board meetings. The silent majority is no longer silent, and I agree children are worth fighting for. We just disagree about the way to fight for them.”
Holt said: “Right now, this conversation that we’re having in our community is a very, very important conversation and a very important debate that we’re having. I value, obviously, people coming out to debate this issue, it’s very important that we do that and I think that it’s reflective of how our Republic should work.”
The timing of this proposed change on public comments is precarious. Ward said after the meeting she “noticed that the majority of the board didn’t want to limit public comments” until public comments largely were in opposition to the majority board.
Smith said she and Kerr will bring guidelines to the upcoming board meeting on Monday, Oct. 3. The board will also vote on a $113,250 expenditure, from the education fund, with Heinemann Publishing as well as a $296,204 expenditure, out of the operations and maintenance fund, with Tyco Simplex Grinnell.