State education board won't allow comment from public at meetings Letters, phone calls, faxes will continue to be accepted

June 24, 1998|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

Saying it was "the wrong way to do the right thing," Maryland State Board of Education members yesterday defeated a resolution that would have allowed the public 45 minutes a month to have a say before the panel.

The board defeated perhaps the most controversial issue to come before it in many months by a vote of 5 for and 6 against (7 votes were needed to pass), after a spirited discussion led by student member Ritchie Sharpe, who proposed the resolution to establish a "public comment period" during each of the board's monthly meetings.

"I think letters are very effective, but for some people it's easier to come and see us listening to them," said Sharpe, who recently graduated from Westlake High School in Charles County and is finishing a year on the board.

Six board members disagreed, led by Walter Sondheim, who said the comment period would prove troublesome for the board and could give the impression that the state group was usurping the role of local boards, which traditionally include time for public comment in their meetings.

"I don't believe much in three-minute speeches," said Sondheim, who said questions of time demands and the possibility of special interest groups or nearby residents monopolizing sessions prompted him to vote against the issue.

Board Vice President Edward Andrews concurred, saying that he supported opportunities for public comment, but that citizens had plenty of avenues -- letters, phone calls, faxes -- to reach board members, who live across the state.

"There is a much better way than to give three minutes. I think it's the wrong way to do the right thing," said Andrews.

Earlier this year, the board instituted a public comment period specifically for those who wanted to talk about proposed graduation tests and changes in the high school curriculum that will precede them. Sharpe's resolution was intended to expand that.

He adapted the resolution after Sondheim wrote a letter to board members stating his opposition. The latest version would have allowed the board to eliminate the public comment period after a six-month trial.

"I'm kind of surprised that my colleagues would not be more open to public comment," Sharpe said after the vote.

In other business, the board heard from health educators that they will begin adding material about violence prevention to their courses. "If we look at the number of incidents of violence, it is becoming evident that the needs of students are not being met," said Lynn Linde, who oversees health education for the state department.

As part of increased violence prevention measures, the state will sponsor a safe schools conference in September. More than 1,000 teachers, students, parents, school nurses and community leaders are expected to participate in the two-day event, and use it as a catalyst for individual school and district prevention programs.

Pub Date: 6/24/98

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