Sunday, March 11, 2012

The public should always feel welcome

Luanne Rife

Recent columns

From the RoundTable blog

Last week, hundreds of Franklin County taxpayers crammed into the Benjamin Franklin Middle School auditorium to attend a public hearing on their school district's proposed budget. It wasn't at all clear beforehand whether any members of the public actually would be heard.

The week before, Superintendent Charles Lackey — during a public meeting attended by reporters — repeatedly asked them not to report on tentative budget information. Board members debated whether the upcoming public hearing was for board members and administrators, rather than the public, to be heard. There should not have been a question.

And there isn't at other school boards. Just up U.S.220 in Roanoke County, members of the audience are invited by the chairman to say whatever is on their mind. And a short jaunt from there, the Roanoke city board rotates its meeting through different neighborhood schools, hosting meet-and-greet gatherings prior to formal sessions.

How each school board decides to interact with the public is up to that governing body. When it comes to regular meetings of the people's business, Virginia law is silent on the matter, said Megan Rhyne with the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. School boards must conduct their business in public but they don't have to listen to the public.

"They can pretty much use whatever rules they want," she said. "They are just supposed to apply them evenly."

While Rhyne hasn't heard of any boards refusing routinely to take public comments, policies vary widely.

The more restrictive the policy, the more difficult the relationship between the board and the community, she said.

Traditionally during the launch of Sunshine Week, I recap the stories written during the past year by Roanoke Times reporters that were better informed based on facts they gathered through Freedom of Information Act requests.

Documents, though, provide just one means for the governed to interact with those governing them. Meetings in which the public can have its say, whether on agenda topics or on concerns they believe are going unaddressed, go a long way toward whether people feel their elected officials are working for or against them.

Last year, Franklin County went through a vigorous school board election prompted mostly by concerns that the board and superintendent dismissed public input and worked in an opaque manner.

The school board's current written policy requires those wishing to address the board to seek permission at least seven days prior to the meeting — several days before the agenda is published. They need to disclose the topic they wish to address and must first go through channels and talk with a principal or some other staff member. And everyone wanting to talk to the school board must first go through the superintendent, which can strike some as an intimidation tactic.

Lackey doesn't see it that way. "The system we do have has worked very well for us," he said. And the "clear expectation is that we deal with issues at the level they occur."

Still, he said the policy is routinely updated and is currently undergoing a revision. The school board will receive a draft that will reduce prior notice from seven days to the Friday before a Monday meeting, which better reflects current practice. But members of the public will still need to go through the superintendent first, though Lackey said they are considering having a time for people to speak.

Other school boards are far more friendly to the people who place them in office, and have benefited from goodwill and confidence in return.

In Roanoke County, not only can people sign up to speak right before the meeting, the audience is asked if anyone else feels moved to speak.

"This board does not duck the public," said spokesman Chuck Lionberger. "We're teaching our future. The entire community has not just a say but a role in that."

Roanoke County board members hold community meetings in their districts; administrators post online much of what the board will consider — especially when it comes to the budget.

In Roanoke city, Chairman David Carson explained their policy: "I think we all learned very early in our tenures that for purposes of our decision making, it is important to receive information not only from the administration (our primary source of information), but also from those whom we are serving. So, not only did we welcome outside information, we solicited it in the form of our informal 'meet and greets'; our surveys to students, staffs and parents; and the interactive 'comment' section of each board meeting — which we moved to the start of every board meeting, as opposed to keeping it at the end."

As a result, Roanoke county and city school boards have developed productive relationships with parents and taxpayers. Though they may not approve of every bit of spending, of every policy, redistricting line or school closing, the public remains supportive of overall efforts.

Salem School Board, too, enjoys a good relationship with a community that outwardly expresses much pride in its schools. While the board's policy welcomes the public and would grant anyone the opportunity to speak even at the last minute, board clerk Kathy Jordan said in her five years "we never had anyone come." She chalks that up to a community happy with the work of the school board.

Franklin County School Board finds itself in an opposing position. The community is unhappy and expressed that at the ballot box.

Board members should keep this in mind as they revise the policy detailing how they will treat the public. When people feel welcomed rather than simply tolerated, the relationship changes from antagonistic to affable, which benefits all.

Rife is on The Roanoke Times editorial board.

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