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School Board’s neighborhood meetings are too important for the district to abandon

Members of the Buffalo School Board need to listen to their president, James Sampson, because he understands this issue: The location of board meetings isn’t designed around the comfort or convenience of members, but to engage the public in the functioning of the school district. It’s about openness, which, as board members must surely know, is a foundational concept of democracy.

The issue arises because, for the past 21 months, the board has held half of its meetings in schools rather than the boardroom in City Hall. It was an effort to make meetings more accessible and comfortable to the public, and the results have been mixed.

The problem with the boardroom, as Sampson succinctly put it, is that it is “incredibly uncomfortable, cramped and it smells.” While meetings at such places as Waterfront Elementary School and the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts have typically drawn more than 150 people, the district boardroom is not meant to accommodate that kind of crowd.

Thus, some attendees in City Hall are forced to watch on a big-screen television in an adjacent room, while those who make it in to the boardroom must contend with the uncomfortable, threadbare seats. And when the board goes into executive session, members remain in the boardroom while spectators are evicted to the hallway.

It was an uninviting setting and the board did right to make a change. Based on Sampson’s motion, the board in 2013 reached a compromise decision to hold half of its meetings in schools while the other half and all committee meetings remained at City Hall.

It hasn’t been a perfect solution, it’s fair to say. Some residents have had difficulty making their way to off-site meetings. That’s not a problem at City Hall, which is well-served by public transit. The logistics of transporting equipment and food for board members can be challenging.

These may be legitimate issues, but the solution to them cannot be simply to go back to what wasn’t working before. All are problems that can be solved, either through better planning or by trying something different. For example:

• Can board meetings be rotated among a few easily accessible schools?

• Is other space, besides the district boardroom, available for use in City Hall?

• What else can be done to encourage the public to become involved in the district’s meetings?

Whatever the answer is, it can’t be to give up and go back to the smelly, uncomfortable, poorly designed boardroom. That would be disrespectful of parents, voters, teachers, students and anyone else who wants to attend meetings that deal with issues critical to them and to the community at large.

If board members focus on the needs of the public as they consider this issue, rather than what is merely easy or convenient, then they will find a way to serve the greatest number of people with the greatest efficiency possible. That needs to be the goal. Going back to the boardroom is the wrong move.