School board seeking time

Yes vote on changing meetings would limit public's access

August 12, 2008|By Arin Gencer | Arin Gencer,Sun reporter

Baltimore County school board members are scheduled to vote tonight on proposed changes to their twice-monthly meetings that would turn one into a work session and limit the number of groups that are allotted time to address them at the other.

The proposals to modify the two board policies are intended to give members more time to discuss issues in depth, board President JoAnn C. Murphy said.

"With the current format, it's very driven," Murphy said. "We often have three hours of procedural things to get through, and that's assuming that there is good preparation. ... We really don't get that time to discuss big-picture issues."

The changes would distinguish between business meetings, which would include public comment, and work sessions for "the review and evaluation of the school program and/or the development and discussion of board policy," where the public would not be allowed to speak, according to a draft version. In addition, people wishing to address the board would have to provide the "agenda item or educational topic" they want to discuss, rather than simply the topic, as current policy states. "We want to clarify for people what is appropriate for public comment," Murphy said, referring to times when remarks have dealt with matters that would fall under a county department. "We really want people to tell us what they're thinking, but to be focused."

A draft of the public-participation policy describes "stakeholder groups" - those typically invited "to report the results of their meetings and group activities" - as including employee unions, the county PTA and student councils and board-created advisory groups.

The proposal narrows the list of groups that regularly tend to address the board, eliminating organizations such as the nonboard-appointed advisory committees on special education and alternative programs, the diversity and achievement steering committee and the Baltimore County Education Coalition.

"It's our attempt to kind of streamline and use the time well," Murphy said.

While the board should have work sessions, limiting public comment is "not wise or forward-thinking," said Maggie Kennedy, the first chairwoman of the Baltimore County Education Coalition.

The board "needs a variety of stakeholder and constituent groups to fairly represent public opinion," Kennedy said, adding that the coalition recently has taken on several topics - such as overcrowding and the need for air-conditioned schools - that some of the representative groups recognized by the board have not.

"There are a number of issues that we in the past have challenged the board about, that have caused the board to move," Kennedy said.

Murphy said some board members may suggest amending the policy to also cover advisory committees as stakeholders.

"We are hoping that the people who want to comment will use the other ways of doing it as well as the board meetings," Murphy said.

However, Kennedy said that meetings, unlike letters, e-mails or calls, are "the only way that comments can be entered into the public record."

The majority of Maryland school boards operate with a combination of business and work-session type meetings, said Carl Smith, executive director of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education.

"It simply helps the board be more involved, more informed," said Smith, adding that the association strongly advocates work sessions, which allow boards to discuss issues without coming to any decision. "They are the governors of the school system. To be a good governor, you have to know the issues. And work sessions are designed to help them do that."

Cathi Forbes, chairwoman of Towson Families United, a group formed to push for a solution to crowding in Towson-area elementary schools, said she admired the board for trying to find more time to explore and understand issues.

"They're trying to be better board members," Forbes said. "A work session might be good for them."

If approved, the meeting format would be a pilot for the 2008-2009 school year, Murphy said.

"We don't know how this is going to work because it's not been done," she said. "If it doesn't suit our needs, we'll be back to the drawing board."

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