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Public input a liability?

Taking comments from the public at unspecified times opens school board up to liability issues

October 07, 2009
MILTON — Municipal officials risk liability if they take comments from the public at unspecified times during meetings, said New Hampshire School Administrators Association's Executive Director to the SAU 64 school board last week.

Dr. Mark Joyce, executive director of the NHSAA, came to an SAU 64 workshop at Nute High School in Milton on Sept. 30, to give a presentation about the role school board members play in the community. SAU 64 includes schools in Milton and Wakefield.

In the beginning of his presentation, Joyce explained that being a school board member is a difficult task because one must way many different interests and responsibilities. He compared serving on a school board member to being a juggler on the Ed Sullivan Show. The jugglers would balance a number of spinning plates on sticks.

"There is no real job description for a school board member," said Joyce.

The post has become so difficult and "thankless" that about a third of newly elected school board members will not finish their term, he said.

Much of last week's conversation focused on how a board should balance community relations with their responsibility to follow the law.

"People will come to the meeting and expect to be a board member and participate with you," said Joyce. "There have been some court cases that found the board at fault for doing that. The reason is you didn't notify every citizen they could comment. In other words, you didn't post your agenda that it's an open forum."

School board members said they do have public comment sessions listed at the beginning and end of their agendas. However, they have allowed questions from the public at other times.

Wakefield school board member Peter Kasprzyk said he didn't understand how a school board could be held liable for taking comments from the public. If someone doesn't show up isn't that his or her own fault, he asked.

Joyce replied, someone could make comment during unassigned period that sways the board's opinion on a particular issue and that wouldn't be fair according to the courts.

"No one else in the community had notice that you were taking input from people," said Joyce.

In one case, public input swayed the outcome in awarding a contract, said Joyce. Under the law, everyone has equal opportunity to comment if there is an assigned comment period on the agendas, he said.

Further, Joyce, said when a board does get comment from the public, the board shouldn't discuss it at the same meeting because it might change the "dynamic of the agenda."

"When people make a comment don't respond, ever," said Joyce.

To increase transparency, board members shouldn't propose and adopt new policies on the same night. Rather, there should be two readings for policy changes. That way, the public can have an opportunity to add input, said Joyce.

Milton School board member Jim Clark said if the board gets new information from a public comment that changes the board's opinion, the discussion is tabled for another day.

School board members have the obligation to do most of their business in public, however, the right to know law demands than some business, such as special education matters be done in private, said Joyce.

Kasprzyk said he's gotten questions from residents that he knows he's not allowed to answer.

During one of the meeting's public comment periods, audience member Douglas Shute said he hopes the school boards maintain their transparency so they can keep residents' trust.

"You need voters to support what you want and if you don't you're not going anywhere," said Shute.

Other responsibilities school board members must juggle include finance, curriculum and instruction, student services, and maintenance and capital.

Curriculum concerned SAU board chair Luella Snyder, of the Milton School Board, who said she wanted the school district to set higher standards.

Joyce replied school board members have no authority to act on their own but the full board has the power to set goals and policy. The school board should hold the school district responsible for implementing the school board's policies.

One school board made a lot of progress when it stated all the schools in its district would be accredited within a few years.

"By stating the goal, it changed everything," Joyce said.

The job of a school board member has become more complicated in the last 30 years because now schools depend more heavily on state and federal money, which comes with lots of regulations, said Joyce. He encouraged school board members to talk with their state and federal legislators to make sure they understand the impact of their work.

"They don't want to work against the interests of their own taxpayers," said Joyce.

Milton School board member Dr. Candace Cole-McCrea asked Joyce for advice on how the school board could do long term planning.

Joyce replied the board should set aside time during the year to brainstorm four major goals and then work towards those goals during subsequent meetings.

Martin Lord Osman
Tilton School
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