Two days after last week’s election, the Southborough School Committee met. Members addressed issues of dialogue and cooperation raised by candidate Tim Martel during the election campaign.
First, newly reelected Paul Desmond and Kathleen Harrigan Polutchko were named Chair and Secretary. Standing committee member Gerald Capra was named Vice Chair.
In the meeting, Capra addressed the issue of working with other town committees. He believed it was a good idea to increase cooperation. He suggested to have Board of Selectmen members put on the agenda for a meeting in the fall so they can work together.
Prior to that, members clarified policy for public dialogue at committee meetings.
They confirmed that Audience Sharing on meeting agendas is only for public comment, not dialogue. Later in the meeting if the topic is on the agenda, the committee will discuss it among themselves and school administrators.
Participating remotely, Desmond stated:
During the campaign there was some issue that the committee doesn’t want back and forth dialogue. And that’s not true. Because there is another avenue for that and that’s to get on the agenda.
So if you have a legitimate issue about a school related matter you, just make the request through the chair or perhaps through the superintendent.
I followed up with Desmond for clarification this week. I wanted to know, if people want to have an open dialogue on something already on the agenda, can they ask to be placed on the agenda for that?
Desmond’s response was:
if someone were to contact the Superintendent and asked to be put on the agenda to discuss an item that’s already on the agenda, my guess is he would tell them they are free to comment during Audience Sharing – that is the vehicle we have in place for such things. As chair, that’s what I would do.
Desmond then pointed back to the justifications made at the meeting by other committee members.
Mary Beth Strickland claimed that their committees are different than many others. Their meetings are where they “do their business” with the principals and the school administration.
It is a meeting that is not for the public. It is a meeting that is in the public due to [public meeting laws]. . . Where other meetings are considered public forums.
She pointed out that the committee follows the recommended procedures and standard format of most school committees.
Harragan claimed that the Southborough School Committee’s policy of allowing a second chance for audience sharing at the end of the meeting is rare.
In his email to me, Desmond pointed me to the Massachussetts Association of School Committees’ website. There, a random check of policy manuals seemed to confirm both Strickland’s and Harragan’s statements about other town’s policies.
Desmond also re-clarified the Audience Sharing as a little more open than it may appear:
speakers should not necessarily expect to engage in dialogue or debate with committee members. If a committee member has a question, they may well ask it. If an audience member has a simple question to which a committee or administration member has a ready answer, we will certainly give it. If not, we may well need time to fully examine the question or any information presented and prepare a response.
Finally, Desmond defended the committee and school administration as listening to the public and offering opportunities “to make themselves heard”.
He referred to public hearings, public presentations, and recent decisions based on public feedback. (After public criticism, the committee voted to scale back the iPad 1:1 initiative and continue observing religious holidays on the calendar.)