Manatee School Board wants public comment policy changed

eearl@bradenton.comSeptember 24, 2013 

Members of the Manatee County school board listen as members of the public address the board during a Sept. 9 meeting. FILE PHOTO/PAUL VIDELA/Bradenton Herald

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MANATEE -- The Manatee County School Board is planning to change the way it conducts board meetings.

An outside firm may help update board policies and procedures, most of which have been untouched for several years, according to school board chairwoman Karen Carpenter.

"We have to decide what we are going to do," Carpenter said at a workshop Monday afternoon.

The board spoke with Jerry Copeland, president of Education Management Consultant Services Inc., at the workshop.

The firm will study the manual to see if policies are current, and then help create a new draft manual for the school board.

Copeland said the service also includes up to three eight-hour workshops to review the new policy manual.

The board is also considering contracting with a similar firm called Neola.

Carpenter said it is urgent to begin updating policies, and wants it completed within the next 45 days.

"We can't be operating by exception and dealing with things case by case," Carpenter said.

A primary school board concern involves the public comment policy, which has not been updated since it was created in 2005.

"Many public comments are questions," school board member Barbara Harvey said. "Citizens are asking for answers."

Harvey said public comments should not turn into a debate, and she feels uncomfortable responding directly to questions because board members may not have "an accurate response."

Harvey said the board should set a time for public comments before the meeting, then break for personnel to answer questions that came up.

"What concerns me about public comments is that people are making comments that aren't accurate," Harvey said.

Harvey suggested allowing senior staff members such as deputy superintendents Don Hall or Diana Greene to "state the facts" after comments are made.

School board vice chairwoman Julie Aranibar said one of her public comment concerns involves children coming to speak.

"I welcome their comments, but I am concerned about them stating their medical conditions," Aranibar said. "I am not sure about the legality, and it is not mentioned in the policy."

Aranibar said public comments should be limited to those who submit a comment card 15 minutes prior to the beginning of the meeting. Aranibar said she would also like to do away with reading the cumbersome instructions before public comments.

School board member Bob Gause said a clear definition of public comment policy for group comment is needed.

"That policy has been abused to get five minutes," Gause said. "We have been liberal for allowances, and we do not have a policy."

The board limits individual comments to three minutes.

School board attorney James Dye said time spent on public comments is time not spent on other agenda items.

"You need to look into under what circumstances, if any, we would waive the rules," Dye said. "Jurisdictions from other districts say that it is up to the chair to make that decision, others say it is up to the board."

School board member Dave "Watchdog" Miner said he has experience in the public comment arena, and has little complaint with the policy.

"It is the opportunity to share concerns about education," Miner said. "It's a wonderful thing."

The only critique Miner had was to change the wording in the comment instructions from "citizens" having the right to comment to "the public."

Carpenter said she wants to "button down" policy changes as soon as possible.

Although the board wants to specify its policy on public comments, Hall said he wants more community engagement in planning the budget next fiscal year.

Hall said the district should provide more time for school board engagement and feedback during the budget planning process, which begins next month.

Hall's plan includes a citizen's budget committee.

"This is not about a group of people diving through and complaining about line items," Hall said.

The committee will offer suggestions for engaging the community. The district is looking to tap retired teachers and administrators as part of the team.

Hall also wants to have five or six public forums during budget planning.

"It is tough to get people to come," Hall said. "We have to go out to where people are in forums such as the Dream Center, and to Hispanic parts of the community with bilingual translators."

Hall said the district will need to act fast in getting information out about forming the committee, as he expects public forums to begin the fourth week of October.

"This is to get the voice of everyone in the community," Hall said.

Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.

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