Our View: Keeping forum open
November 5, 2004
The Moffat County School District Board of Education is considering changing the way it allows parents and taxpayers to address the board.
We like that the district has established an open forum before each meeting to give anyone a chance to say what’s on his or her mind. But the board has received advice from the Colorado Association of School Boards that such a forum opens the door to problems.
Once a school board establishes an open forum, then the board cannot intercede if someone’s comments stray into areas better-suited for executive session, Superintendent Pete Bergmann said. An open forum means the board has a First Amendment obligation to let people speak freely.
“It’s complicated,” Bergmann said. “We want to give the public an opportunity to speak, but we don’t want slanderous remarks about personnel and students flying around the boardroom.”
The board and the administration have a good track record of openness, so we’re not overly concerned that the proposed changes will stifle public comment.
The administration suggested implementing some controls because the current system is “awkward and inefficient,” as Bergmann describes it.
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Currently, 30 minutes are set aside before each board meeting for general public comment in a “Let’s Listen” session.
But few people ever take advantage of the opportunity to address the board. Bergmann estimates that only 10 percent of the time set aside for comment is used the way it’s intended. We agree that it makes no sense to waste the board’s time.
So board members are thinking of asking people to get on the board’s agenda and specify what they plan to talk about. Negative comments about teachers and students will be heard behind closed doors.
Bergmann summed up the administration’s position with a question:
“How open a forum do we want this to be?” he said. “If we have an open and public meeting and we have public participation, we can’t control what they say.”
Bergmann said it’s not a matter of trying to curtail criticism of school board decisions, but protecting the rights of teachers and students whose names could be dragged through the mud.
The board should continue to welcome comments from parents, teachers and students. It’s unfortunate that board members and administrators feel they have to go this route, but if it helps streamline the process, and no one is denied the opportunity to speak, then we accept the board’s judgment on making the system better. They’ve earned a certain level of trust because of their commitment to open communication.
Board members and administrators have pondered in open sessions the best way to communicate with parents about what’s going on in schools. The administration has always welcomed the media to its meetings and provided materials so journalists can stay on top of policy changes and philosophical shifts. We encourage the board to continue to stay true to the concept of transparency because it’s the hallmark of good government.
At the same time, we remind readers that the board’s time is valuable. Those who wish to address the board should have their comments prepared and be ready to get to the point.