TCAPS to mull public comment policy | News
TRAVERSE CITY – The president of the Traverse City Public Schools Education Committee plans to introduce a new rule at the next board meeting that could allow board members to respond to public comments.
Currently, TCAPS board members are not allowed to respond, and CEO Scott Newman-Bale is concerned that this will allow for misinformation to be leaked and disseminated during meetings, he said.
“By not saying anything, it’s almost like taking it for granted,” said Newman-Bale.
A new policy would allow trustees to respond to public comments to better address public concerns and correct misinformation, he said.
“You can see that people are visibly excited about something that you know is incorrect,” Newman-Bale said. “And current policies don’t allow you to do anything about it.”
Trustee of the Board of Directors, Andrew Raymond, generally supports such a policy, but is unsure how to shape it in a way that does not suppress people’s opinions and concerns.
“I think especially with COVID and COVID misinformation, at least from my point of view, anything that is obviously wrong … it would be nice to have a chance to respond,” said Raymond.
Amid optimism about how the new policy could benefit trustees and the public, there is also concern.
Newman-Bale and Raymond both expressed concerns about sparking debates that would increase meeting time and reduce productivity.
“What I don’t want is some kind of debate during an actual meeting,” said Raymond. “Meetings are really for us to do district business.”
Policies that allow board members to respond to public comments are not common in Michigan, said Don Wotruba, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Boards. While Wotruba recognizes that such a policy has the potential to be helpful and handle incorrect information, it has expressed concerns about its impact on meetings.
“I think it’s difficult to write a board of directors policy or process that somehow restricts you to this type of discussion but doesn’t end up in a place where the public expects you to respond to whatever is asked,” said Wotruba.
Policies similar to those Newman-Bale hopes to implement have been shown to be effective in the Suttons Bay Public Schools district, said Suttons Bay Public Schools superintendent Casey Petz.
Petz said the ability for board members to respond to public comments strengthened the board’s relationship with the community, helped the board better address “sensitive issues” and made people feel “heard”.
“In my observation, first as a school board member, I found that there were some really sensitive issues and some really heated board-level discussions that were simply able to respond to those questions or concerns in the moment that really helped people to understand and to feel better heard, ”said Petz.
At Suttons Bay Education Committee meetings, Board Chairman Chris DeJong will direct the administrators of the meeting to raise any questions or concerns. Petz said the policy actually shortened board meetings.
“Most of them are now shorter than ever,” said Petz. “And the reason for this would be: Sometimes part of the discussion or part of the reaction is to give the people who make public comments more tools, strategies and ideas on how to more effectively implement changes for themselves and their students.”
Petz encourages concerned parents and community members to get involved outside of boardroom meetings to more effectively translate their concerns into school policy, he said.
“Sometimes people come to a board meeting to really be heard and really passionate about something, and then they walk away feeling that the decision has already been made. “If someone makes a public comment and the ship has already left, you can use it to say, ‘Here are the opportunities for you to influence the decision.'”
For the TCAPS Education Board, the process of implementing a new policy would include discussions between trustees and administrators, examining the legal aspects of the issue, and voting on its adoption. Newman-Bale predicts that the new policy will be discussed at the October 11th meeting and, if approved, will be formally rolled out in either November or December.
Newman-Bale said he wasn’t sure what the final policy will be, but he wants it to be “balanced” and create more trust and transparency between the public and the board. He plans to seek best practice advice from the Michigan Association of School Boards, he said.
“I want to make sure this is a sustainable system,” said Newman-Bale.