Telling the Lancaster School Board just what you think won’t quite be the same anymore.
Until now, residents could speak twice during a board meeting – early in the meeting and again at the end. And they could talk for as long as they wanted.
The changes are: The public can speak only at the end of the meeting in what the district calls a “public hearing.” That hearing would follow the board’s action items.
Also new is a 5-minute limit on speakers. And if residents want to be among the first heard, it’s recommended – though not required – that they contact the district clerk ahead of time to put their name on a list.
“We are trying to make the board meetings more efficient and make them flow better,” Superintendent Michael J. Vallely said. “Plan what you’re going to say, and say it in five minutes. That’s pretty standard across Western New York. Five minutes is a pretty generous and liberal amount of time.”
The board this week adopted the new policy that many say was in the works for more than a year – despite recent public chatter about controversial Common Core testing standards, as well as one resident’s comments in late August that strayed to Nazi Germany.
The comments by Herbert Hough, who voiced his criticism about standardized tests and who later insisted they were misinterpreted by the board, led to a heated exchange with some on the board. Some felt he called them Nazis.
At the time, board President Marie MacKay told Hough to “end the conversation” and told him she would “not have this in public.”
Longtime board member Kenneth E. Graber and others said the policy change was not a move to stifle the public’s voice.
“I wish more people would come and talk to us. It’s not a matter of discouraging people to talk,” Graber said. “Nobody appears to pay too much attention to the agenda. They get up and talk, and go on and on.”
As a result, Graber said, the new changes – beginning with the board’s next meeting Dec. 9 in William Street School – make more sense. “If people can’t comment in five minutes, I don’t think they have much to say,” he said. “You should be able to say what you have to say in public in five minutes.”
The board has discussed tweaking its policy of two public hearings for every meeting for at least the last two years, Vallely said. The policy has been in place for roughly 12 years.
The matter has been on the board’s agenda for the last three months for review – and was discussed by the board at its retreat earlier this year – before it was adopted unanimously by the board late Tuesday.
Vallely thinks the new plan is better. “We are extremely liberal and have had no limitation on how long they can speak,” he said. “We also dialogue with the residents, and if at all possible, we try to answer their questions right then and there. We think that is better communication.”
Vallely insisted the new change is not a result of recent questioning by some in the community upset by the new, state-mandated learning standards known as Common Core. “I know it may look like it’s due to Common Core, but they’ve been talking about this a long time, long before the Common Core issues and Herbert Hough came along.”
But, he said, “I know that because of the timing of it, it will seem suspicious.”
Lancaster resident Lee Chowaniec, a regular at School Board and other government meetings, was not aware the board had changed its policy. “It’s a double-edged sword,” he said. “I’m disappointed that they’re rolling back one comment section. However, if you can’t get something said in five minutes ...”
Chowaniec noted that it could be a problem if an item is voted on before the board is able to listen to the public on a matter. And, on the other hand, offering public speaking at the end of the meeting, forces people to stay until the end, he said.
Those wanting to get on the public speaking list before a board meeting – though that is optional – can contact the district clerk’s office at 686-3201.