While we might have some sympathy for the Buffalo School Board in its desire to get through business meetings in a timely manner, putting limits on the public's voice is not the right move.
The board is considering limiting to 20 the total number of residents who can speak at each business meeting. The proposed policy also would allow no more than five members of the public to speak on the same topic at a single meeting.
Board member ay large John B. Licata said, "Five speakers on a single topic seems to be sufficient to get the board's attention. With the [proposed policy], the board reserves the right to limit the number of people commenting on the same issue, essentially preventing overkill or monopolizing a board meeting on a single issue."
The proposed changes smack at least of impatience, if not outright disregard for public input. And that's really unfortunate because the precedent has been set by previous boards to allow the public greater voice.
Current board policy adopted 10 years ago imposed a limit of 30 speakers at each meeting with no limit on how many people can talk on a single topic.
In comparison, the Rochester Public School District has no limit on the number of speakers, although the total time allowed for public comment during a meeting is capped at 60 minutes. In Erie County, school boards generally limit speakers to three minutes apiece, but there is no limit on the number of speakers per topic or per meeting.
In Buffalo each speaker is allowed up to three minutes, meaning the public portion of the meeting can seem long-winded at times and occasionally push the meetings past 10 p.m. It is, however, important that the public has wide latitude to be heard on topics of importance to the community. The public portion of the business meetings allows just that kind of free flow of information. It also fosters growth and ideas.
As cited by News reporter Mary B. Pasciak, the board took action after hearing from many speakers over the last few months on the issue of out-of-school suspensions for nonviolent offenses. Interim Superintendent Amber M. Dixon directed her staff to convene public hearings and she later implemented an 11-point plan that included altering district regulations regarding suspensions.
The job of School Board member is not easy; it pays a mere $5,000 for long hours and plenty of headaches. But the solution can't be to make the job easier by cutting off public access.
The board has been quite liberal in allowing speakers to comment during business meetings and there is no reason to change that practice now.