Tin-eared and Wrong-headed

TJ Mertz:

At the Board of Education meeting Monday (2/4/2008) a proposal was put forth to enact new limits on public testimony. This proposal and the way it was introduced and discussed showed some on the Board at their worst, both tin-eared and wrong-headed. These are overlapping criticisms, because with the interactions between elected officials and the public, perceptions (tin-eared) and realities (wrong-headed) are inseparable.
Before I go further a caveat is in order. I did not attend the meeting on Monday and only watched the last 45 minutes or so at home. Still, I’m pretty confident in what I have to say.

6 thoughts on “Tin-eared and Wrong-headed”

  1. Every board member has been very clear that we want input on items that are on the agenda and items that are not. The issue is how we arrange the agendas in ways that allow us to do our best work as a board. My perspective appears below:
    On February 18, the Board of Education will discuss proposed changes in the policy on public appearances. The proposals were developed at the request of several board members. I support the proposed changes and will vote for them for the reasons outlined below.
    Depending on where you sit, the changes are minor and strike a balance between board business and public presentation, or they are major and cut off citizen access to the board. From my perspective as a board member, the changes are proposed in order to make sure that the board has adequate time to work on the issues before us.
    In recent months we have struggled to get through our agendas and to have the quality discussions that we need to have so that we can move forward on some major issues. For example, we have struggled to find the time to do the work that will allow us to advance our review and revision of our expulsion policies. Nor have we had focused time to work on developing policies that would ensure that the district practices equity in its policies and operations.
    Although the problem may not sound like a big deal, there is a palpable frustration among some board members (including me) because we have not made the progress that we need to make. Both initiatives are complicated and we are working hard to make sure that we don’t create more problems as we move forward.
    At the same time, there is a sense of urgency as we see widening resource disparities between schools and as we are increasingly asked to address safety and the learning environment in all of our schools.
    The changes would preserve the right of any citizen to appear before the Board of Education and speak their piece (within a 3-minute time period). However, there would be a distinction between comments on agenda items and comments that are not on agenda items. Students could speak on any topic before the meeting (they get to go first now.)
    Under the current practice, anyone can speak on anything at the beginning of any board meeting that is not designated as a workshop. Under the proposed policy, people would be allowed to speak before the meeting on items that are on the agenda for that meeting. People who want to speak on other topics would speak after the board has completed its work.
    The reasoning is that this would help the board to get valuable information that helps us to make decisions and allow us to listen to additional issues and concerns when we are not preoccupied with the agenda items. I will support the proposal because I know that my concentration and focus is very different when there are 60+ minutes of public comment on a specific agenda item, and when there are 60+ minutes of public comment on a range of topics that are unrelated to the decisions that we will be making. I still want to hear the latter set of comments, but would find it helpful to do so after we have attended to the night’s agenda.
    I don’t want to say more because I fear that it will sound whiny, and that is not my intent. I have seen some of the e-mails that are flying around about the proposal and wanted to provide some perspective on why the proposed changes feel
    fair and sensible to me. I hope that you will feel comfortable asking about specific aspects of the proposals and why I believe them to be important.
    Thank you for taking the time to read this and consider the challenges that I am trying to articulate and the reasons behind the proposals.
    Lucy Mathiak

  2. There are a wide variety of ways to voice opinions, and perhaps even get attention. Far more than in the past.
    These include: public appearances, pen a letter, send an email (comments@madison.k12.wi.us), write online, start your own blog, post a video or mp3 audio file, participate in community forums, run for school board, apply for a school system position (might require some additional degrees and paperwork).
    I can certainly understand board member frustration given long hours, often difficult issues and precious little (any?) upside to the personal time , effort and expense required.
    How does the city council handle such appearances, not to mention the County Board, Legislature, Governor and Federal Government?
    Personally, I emailed and phoned in a request to chat with Governor Doyle recently regarding the AT&T video “competition” giveaway that he signed. Take a guess as to whether such a brief meeting ever occurred?

  3. You know, the more I think about this, the more I’m inclined to believe that we’ll see some middle ground evolve. I know I’ve complained that the Board doesn’t get much done on certain issues, and perhaps 2 hours of public testimony where everyone after the 5th speaker says the same thing isn’t a priority- not that it’s not valuable in a free speech society. However, when I look back at past iterations of the Board, they almost welcomed public appearances in lieu of getting substantive work done in public meetings. The strategy, as a citizen advocate, was always to get a Board member to ask a question during your appearance. Then, the 3 minute rule was ignored and you got a chance to engage the Board in whatever issue was at hand. I’ve noticed recently that the Board very rarely asks questions of public commenters, presumably to keep things moving and not discuss non-agenda items. So, I hope we can keep the Madison tradition of public appearances alive and still find a way for the Board to be as productive as they’d (and we’d) like.

  4. Agreed, David. Although it may not be obvious (not the stuff that makes the papers), but we are making small progress chipping away at issues related to expulsions, conduct, and equity. However, the progress tends to be decision by decision rather than overall reform and codified policy change that would make the case by case decisions less necessary. (I note that changing how we handle expulsions is not just a disciplinary question – it’s also an equity question.)

  5. Middle ground or an extreme, it is my view that substantially more public input is required and not just 3-minute comments before Board meetings.
    One request that I made at Board meetings on a couple of occasions, and to members and Rainwater personally was to place all materials that are weekly sent to the Board (except materials for Executive sessions) on the web at the same time they are sent to the Board.
    That would given the Public some ability to comment more cogently on point.
    Given that most if not all material is prepared electronically, this would amount to little cost and much gain.

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