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More effective ways explored to hear public input on schools

David Barker Wednesday evening urged the Board of Education to train parents to operate school libraries closed by budget cuts. "We are a valuable resource not only to our children, but to you," he said. "Use us."

Ed Daniels, a frequent board critic, said he has a "heavy heart" over the planned phase-out of Seneca Vocational High School, the scarcity of male African-American teachers and district busing policies.

And Halimah Muhammad and Sam Radford, both representing the Buffalo Local Action Committee, urged the board to increase opportunities for the public to speak out, despite rumors that they will instead be scaled back.

Welcome to the speaker's session at the board's twice-a-month business meetings. They are frequently the most colorful and lively portions of the meetings, but often generate more heat than clarity.

Speakers -- sometimes as many as 30 -- often express frustration that they are limited to three minutes, that there is no opportunity for give-and-take with board members, and that their concerns do not make it to the board agenda.

Board members, in return, sometimes feel they are unfairly and inaccurately chastised by speakers.

"I think the kind of dialogue the community wants is back-and-forth discussion," said Jack Coyle, chairman of the board's Executive Committee. "We can't do that here at business meetings."

The board Wednesday took a step aimed at fixing the problem.

A proposal hammered out by the Executive Committee would reduce the number of speakers at regular board meetings to 15 from 30, but set up three annual "open microphone" meetings at community sites, where participants could sound off on the topics of their choice.

In addition, the board president could allow more than 15 speakers at regular board meetings at his or her discretion.

"I view this as an expansion of our public participation," said Christopher L. Jacobs, an at-large board member.

Radford, anticipating the resolution during his allotted three minutes, disagreed and urged the board to retain the limit of 30 speakers.

"Anything that limits the public's voice even one step is a problem," he said.

In his customary response to the speakers, Superintendent James A. Williams said the real problem is a shortage of parents at board committee meetings, parent council sessions and dozens of other public meetings. Some key committee meetings, he said, are attended only by board members and district staff.

"We have committees on everything," Williams said. "Please, come to the meetings where decisions are being made. I think it's very important to have a two-way dialogue."

Betty Jean Grant, the board's Ferry District member, said she missed the committee meeting where the proposed policy was crafted, and urged that the public be given more time to comment on it before the board votes on it.

Board President Florence D. Johnson urged board members and the public to work together to increase meaningful public participation. "We're asking people not to splinter," she said. "Let's come together."

The resolution was tabled for two weeks, and it remained unclear whether the board will vote on it next month or hold off as Grant suggested. But this much is certain: The issue is sure to set off lots of lively discussion.
e-mail: psimon@buffnews.com1

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