Government Schools

Following Debate on Wording, West Hartford Board of Education Adopts Revised Comment Policy

West Hartford Board of Education meeting, June 6, 2023. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

The West Hartford Board of Education had a second reading of a revision to its bylaws regarding public comment, and after extensive discussion voted 5-2 along party lines to adopt the policy.

By Ronni Newton

The West Hartford Board of Education spent about an hour and a half of what was a nearly five-hour-long final meeting of the 2022-2023 academic year listening to public comment – primarily related to a change to its public comment policy – and ultimately voted along party lines, 5-2, to amend policy 8355 so that in the future comment from the public related to non-agenda items can only take place at the first meeting of the month.

Some members of the public, as well as the two Republican members of the Board of Education, questioned whether or not Tuesday’s vote should have been permitted to take place due to changes in the wording from what had previously been discussed during the first reading of the revised policy on May 16. They asserted that Tuesday’s reading should count as a first reading due to substantive changes in the language, with the second and final reading planned for a future meeting in accordance with the process stated in the Board’s bylaws regarding new policies or bylaw changes.

The Board, however, does not have regular meeting during the summer and does not have another scheduled meeting until Sept. 5, 2023 – following the start of the next academic year.

There was also some confusion expressed about the comment period at the end of Board meetings, and whether or those commenting on non-agenda items will be permitted to speak during that session only at the first meeting of the month, at either meeting, or if public comment on non-agenda items will be heard only at the beginning of the first meeting of the month and never at the end of the meeting.

“The policy that we were given in this current agenda is not the policy that we voted on in the last agenda,” Republican Gayle Harris said Tuesday after the motion to hold a second and final reading before voting on the revised Policy 8355 was made. “The language has been entirely changed … I’m talking about the significant changes in the language between this meeting and last meeting.”

At its meeting on May 16, when a first reading on changes to Policy 8355 was heard, the Board had an extensive discussion about restricting comment on non-agenda items to only the end of a meeting, with several members noting that oftentimes parents bring their young children to meetings to address the Board on topics, not all of which are on the agenda, and meetings often last late into the night.

Democrat Clare Neseralla suggested amending the proposed language under discussion that night (see screenshot from May 16 agenda below, with originally suggested changes in red) to specify that non-agenda items will be able to be heard following comment on agenda items, only at the first meeting of the month, but prior to the business portion of the meeting. That suggested amendment was approved on May 16 by four Board members, while three abstained from voting.

Screenshot from May 16, 2023 Board of Education agenda

“I don’t see how this can be a second reading of something we never had a first reading on,” Harris said, stating that the amended change to the policy that was part of Tuesday night’s agenda (see screenshot below) did not just involve incorporating the amendment that Neseralla had suggested and that was approved on May 16.

Screenshot of revisions to Board of Education policy 8355

Board Chair Lorna Thomas-Farquharson said she believed that the Board was within its authority to vote on the amended policy on Tuesday, and Deputy Corporation Counsel Gina Varano, who was in attendance at the meeting, agreed. “It is the opinion that you could proceed and vote on the policy as it is on the agenda today,” Varano said.

Harris disagreed. “This policy has been entirely changed,” she said, stating that things have been removed and added and the language is completely different, and she added that the board already previously ended up in litigation due to allegations of not following its own rules when voting on changes to the high school nicknames and mascots. She suggested that the Board have a first reading of the language presented Tuesday, rather than calling it a second reading.

“We know when we came together the last time … through discussion and through a suggestion to amend the language what we voted on was in terms of the content of the policy was to have the beginning of the meeting prioritized for agenda items and then non-agenda items, and then the end of the meeting is open,” Thomas-Farquharson said. She added that although the wording presented Tuesday night is different, “substantively speaking, the content is still the same. The substance has not changed.”

Ethan Goldman, the other Republican member of the Board, disagreed and asked when something would be considered a significant change. He said he had highlighted the differences between the policy under discussion on May 16 and the wording being considered on Tuesday, and two-thirds of the words were different.

Some of the concerns Goldman raised were regarding the wording included in the following sentences, which appeared in the policy amendment being considered Tuesday, but had been eliminated (as seen in red above) from what was under discussion on May 16: “At the first regular meeting of the month, [N]no more than ten persons shall be permitted to comment during the public comment period at the beginning of the meeting, provided that such limitation shall not apply to persons commenting on agenda items. A maximum of seven persons shall be allowed to comment on each subject matter.”

Thomas-Farquharson said the new language was just word-smithing, and the limitation on the number of people permitted to comment on agenda and non-agenda items is part of the policy currently in place, and was incorporated into changes made in November 2022, when the Board first adopted amendments to Policy 8355.

“If you have two thirds of the words … a lot of the words are from the original policy and got reverted back to this policy,” said Goldman, and that constitutes a significant change. “When is it a change and when is it not a change, because it’s going to come up in the future,” he said.

Harris also questioned whether the policy clearly delineates when – or if – comment on non-agenda items can take place at the end of either of the Board’s monthly meetings. She asserted that what they were being asked to vote on Tuesday was “an entirely new document” and not a second reading of something that had minor modifications.

Democrat Jason Chang, who originally presented the amended wording, said the first reading on May 16 only presented one opportunity for non-agenda public comments, and Neseralla’s amendment shifted that opportunity from the end of the first meeting of the month to prior to the business section of the first meeting of the month. “The language that’s been changed here is reflective of that intent,” he said. That agreed-upon language has been passed along to the new policy, he added.

“You may not agree with the policy, but we have followed procedure,” said Chang.

Goldman said although he didn’t anticipate the outcome would be any different, he still thought there should be a second reading, that scheduling a vote was “rushed,” and that there were still too many questions about the intent.

Thomas-Farquharson said the policy amendment being considered Tuesday would allow non-agenda items to be raised at the beginning and the end of the first meeting of the month as has been the policy since November – which was not what Chang thought. “The second meeting of the month you can only speak on agenda items,” she said.

Neseralla indicated that her understanding was that there are four comment periods, and the policy change would provide three opportunities for non-agenda items to be raised: at the beginning of the first meeting of the month, and at the end of either meeting.

Harris said it’s convoluted, and in addition, “We are going to try to pass a policy here that that not a single person has written an email in support off that not a single person has spoken in support of … for some reason I get the feeling that you are trying to force this thing through without due diligence.” She said the language at the beginning and end of the policy are contradictory, and forcing it through would be a major mistake.

“There is no effort to force,” Thomas-Farquharson said.

Harris said the wording is confusing and poorly written, and “it has to be crystal clear,” she said, particularly since there is no public support. “It’s ambiguous. Those two sentences contradict each other.”

Thomas-Farquharson also addressed concerns that had been raised by some of the speakers at the beginning of the meeting who asserted that changing the policy is intended to limit public input. “That is not our effort, our intent at all,” she said, and stated that speaking to the Board of Education is not the only outlet for voicing concerns, and in fact there are many other opportunities including speaking to teachers or principals first, as well as to the administration. “There is a web of opportunities to communicate with others,” she said.

What the Board is talking about, Thomas-Farquharson said, is limiting comments on non-agenda items to only the first meeting of the month. “Although we may disagree it does not mean that the process is tainted, that the process is being pushed.”

Harris suggested tabling the motion – either referring it to the policy subcommittee or to the Board’s attorney and revising it so it is clear and not subject to interpretation, but Varano said the Board had to first vote on the motion that was on the floor and being discussed.

“I appreciate that you want clear language and I think what we have in front of us does achieve that,” Chang said. He said it specifies “sentence-for-sentence” how public comment will occur and he doesn’t want there to be any doubt.

“This policy preserves public comment on non agenda items,” Chang said and noted that the Board is also able to change its rules during a meeting with a vote of two-thirds to allow someone to speak on non-agenda items. “The insinuation that the Board is trying to limit public speech or to somehow dictate the terms of the public’s engagement is false,” he said. “This is a policy designed to preserve public discourse, to preserve civic culture based on truth.”

Chang said this is a “sensible policy that prioritizes the public work of the board according to the agenda as well as providing opportunities for the public to comment.”

The Board voted 5-2 to adopt the proposed revisions to Policy 8355. Republicans Harris and Goldman cast the “no” votes, while all five Democrats voted in favor of the amendment. Harris then moved to send the policy back for further revision, but that motion failed along party lines.

During the public comment session prior to the meeting, concerns about the amended policy on public comment were raised by seven speakers.

“There are two critical differences between the language approved by the Board as the first reading on May 16, and the language being proposed tonight,” resident Scott Zweig said. “First, the change proposed on May 16 specifically removed the 10 speaker limit on public comment at the beginning of the meeting. Yet, mysteriously, that language has been added back in,” he said.

“Second, the new change being proposed ban members of the public from speaking on non-agenda topics at the end of any Board meeting,” said Zweig, according to his interpretation of the language. He said that this was never discussed previously, and “because these changes are being proposed for the first time tonight and were not previously presented to the public or the Board, you are prohibited from voting on this change.

Tonight is a first reading,” he said, asking the Board to “do the right thing” and delay the vote in order to not lose the trust of any more town residents. Zweig, who is an attorney, was a plaintiff in action against the town and Board of Education regarding the procedure for changing the Warrior and Chieftain names of the two high schools.

Resident Shawn Daly, who is the chair of the West Hartford Republican Town Committee, said prior to the meeting that he has “never been more disappointed in the Democratic majority party than today,” and said there has been a lack of transparency in the process of changing the public comment policy, with feedback from the public ignored. The volume of public feedback, he said, “is what’s made West Hartford unique.”

Resident India Liddell said the Board’s decision to change a policy which was just changed in November 2022 is intentional, “to make it more difficult” for the public. Since Board members are not permitted to respond to public comments anyway, “all you have to do is listen,” and it’s important that the community be heard.

“You cannot pick and choose what you want to hear,” Liddell said, and members of the public want to bring topics to the Board that are important to them, and deserve to be heard. She said a survey on a West Hartford Facebook group indicated that the public is “100% against” further amendments to this policy. “To put it simply, listen to the people, this is your job,” she said, thanking the Board for listening to her.

The Board on Tuesday also received reports from staff regarding “Equity and Excellence: Student Voice and Agency” and the Safe School Climate Report.

Harris also proposed adding the topic of establishing a Board of Education curriculum committee as a future agenda item. After lengthy discussion about whether it was necessary because the district already has a curriculum council, Acting Superintendent Paul Vicinus was asked to share more information with the Board at at future meeting about how curriculum is developed.

Board members also bid farewell to Chang and thanked him for his service and contributions. Chang announced last month that he would be stepping down from the Board of Education at the end of the academic year.

A successor has not yet been named and Board policy dictates that the vacancy must be filled within 90 days. If the individual appointed to complete Chang’s term wants to remain a member, they will also have to seek election in November 2023.

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