Don't restrict public at Manatee County school board meetings

September 29, 2013 

As the Manatee County school board hires an outside consultant to rewrite dusty policies and procedures, one point should be foremost in the process: This elected body is beholden to voters.

The public comment period stands in the crosshairs as evidenced by remarks at a recent school board meeting -- pinpointing this vital aspect to board meetings.

Created in 2005 and never updated, the public comment policy should be greatly expanded, not diminished. While longtime school board member Barbara Harvey expressed reservations about elected officials lacking correct answers in response to questions from parents and taxpayers, she offered up the solution.

Senior district staff -- such as deputy superintendents Don Hall and Diana Greene -- should be free to respond with accurate and detailed answers. The public deserves nothing less. If nobody can answer on the spot, that answer should be researched and forthcoming without delay.

The public has an absolute right to demand information from a taxpayer-funded entity and get those answers without question or obstruction. These are not private fiefdoms with walls built to shield public scrutiny.

This school district is certainly keenly aware of a wary public whose trust in the administration and board got shattered long ago. The new administration has been working to rebuild that trust, but the job isn't finished. Any restrictions on public comments would not be even remotely acceptable.

This Editorial Board feels very strongly that transparency about everything is paramount. Superintendent Rick Mills has supported this very notion in numerous statements, and we will hold him to his word. And we appreciate his public commitment to openness, and we expect delivery on that pledge.

Manatee school board members must be held to the same expectations. The very idea that the public comment period is time not spent on other board agenda items -- like it's wasted -- should rankle the public.

That said, a board meeting is not the setting for petty grievances and personal whining. Some limitations are in order, and a new policy should rule those out of order, but allow most everything else.

Regarding the multimillion-dollar budget -- the bone of contention for taxpayer ire for years -- Don Hall has a good response: more community engagement. His plan for the coming year features a citizens' budget committee and a batch of public forums during the process, which will begin next month. The public has a right to input on district spending, and this would be a welcome advance on the tone-deaf response by the prior administration.

There's one school board member who has been proud to wear a certain label, that of a government watchdog -- a transparency advocate who constantly addressed the board during public comment periods during all the years before his 2012 election, a lawyer who constantly demanded district public records, and a Sunshine-in-the-Government proponent whose stance has earned him statewide recognition.

So we'll hold Dave "Watchdog" Miner to his nickname, which he adopted based on Herald coverage of his dogged pursuit of prudent school board policy and district transparency. Last Monday, he did call the public commenting period a "wonderful thing." And indeed it is.

Make it better.

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