Government Schools

West Hartford Board of Ed Hears Public Comment About Public Comment

Chris Torino addresses the West Hartford Board of Education on May 16, 2023. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

The West Hartford Board of Education had a first reading of a revision to its bylaws regarding public comment.

By Ronni Newton

The Board of Education plans to have a second reading and vote on modifications to its policy on public comment at its next meeting – the last meeting of the academic year, which is scheduled for June 6 – and at that time members will vote on the proposal to have comment on non-agenda items heard at just one meeting per month.

The proposed bylaw modification presented Tuesday night as the first reading of the policy change specified that the Board would hear comment on agenda items only during a public communications session prior to the business portion of its meeting, with comment on non-agenda items heard only at the end of the first meeting of the month.

More than a dozen people addressed the Board of Education Tuesday night at the beginning of the meeting. The majority addressed an item that was on the agenda – expressing opposition to further changes to Policy 8355, that had been modified as of Nov. 1, 2022 in a 6-1 vote following extensive discussion. Several people also brought up a topic not on the agenda – a significant shortage of before and after school child care options for students at Duffy Elementary Elementary School.

Following extensive discussion by the Board on Tuesday night – during which several members noted that oftentimes parents bring their young children to meetings to address the Board on topics, not all of which are on the agenda – the original proposal was modified 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. The amendment was approved by four Board members, while three abstained from voting.

The material change to the policy adopted in November that will be the subject of a second reading followed by a vote on June 6 is that comment on non-agenda items will be heard only at the first meeting of the month, while comment on agenda items can be heard at either the first or second meeting of the month.

Individuals wishing to speak at Board meetings will still be asked to sign in and indicate the topic about wish they would like to speak, and speakers will still be allotted a maximum of three minutes.

Board Chair Lorna Thomas-Farquharson, when she introduced the modification Tuesday, said it was being proposed to make sure the board is prioritizing hearing about agenda items. “We are not speaking about stopping or hindering public communication,” she said.

The current policy, as it stands now following the modifications made in November to address the public communication period being consumed by comments not germane to the Board agenda, states:

“The Board welcomes public comment, as it represents an opportunity for members of the public to express their views to the Board on matters within the Board’s authority. Each member of the public wishing to speak may address the Board for three minutes at the beginning and three minutes at the end of each meeting for a total of six minutes during the Board’s two public comment periods. Persons commenting on agenda items shall be permitted to comment first. 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. No person shall interrupt a meeting or render the orderly conduct of such meeting unfeasible, and the chairperson may order any individual who engages in such conduct removed. While the Board will not respond to comments made in public session, it will consider such comments in its policy deliberations and, where appropriate, will refer comments to school department personnel for their review as part of their administrative functions.”

Members of the public addressing the Board on Tuesday about public comment said they did not want to see their opportunities further restricted.

Ellen Nichols said the business of the Board is “being accomplished in a timely manner,” which can be seen by looking at the minutes of the meetings that have taken place since the policy change in November. Cutting the frequency of comment time in half, and relegating the comment period for non-agenda items to the end of the meeting sends the message that “we don’t want to hear from you,” she said. It also” diminishes the trust between the Board and its citizens,” and reduces transparency.

School board meetings have traditionally been open, she said, and the proposed change tarnishes that tradition. According to Nichols, the limitation would “[make] West Hartford an outlier in our DRG by reducing communication with the public instead of expanding it,” stating that the other towns in the reference group like Farmington, Simsbury, Avon, and Glastonbury don’t place this type of limitation on comments.

A review of the websites for the Farmington and Avon boards of education indicates that comment is not restricted to agenda items only or held following the business portion of the meeting, but those boards generally meet just once per month. The Glastonbury Board of Education generally meets twice a month, as does the Simsbury Board of Education, and both allow comment on agenda and non-agenda items during the main portion of regular meetings.

Scott Zweig also expressed his opposition to another modification of the policy that was just approved six months ago, and said since that change, meeting length has averaged 1 hour and 40 minutes, as opposed to 2 hours and 50 minutes during the 10 meetings prior to the November change. “There has also been a dramatic reduction in speakers,” he said, with four on average at each meeting, allowed to speak for three minutes each.

“Is 12 minutes of your time too much to ask?” Zweig said. “I just want to know why? Why change it again? Are you not satisfied with the balance you struck just six months ago? … Don’t you want to hear what parents have to say?” Zweig said there is tremendous value in bringing diversity and inclusion of thought into Board decisions and doesn’t believe it should be further restricted and made harder for people to express their opinions when the goals are already being met.

Democratic Board member Jason Chang, who is a member of the Policy Subcommittee, introduced the resolution on Tuesday night. He said, “Following the norms for public meetings of deliberative bodies such as ours, this policy prioritizes public comment for agenda items only,” and said that most boards of education in Connecticut don’t allow speakers on non-agenda items. Most are governed by sunshine laws, he said, and just because they take place “in public” doesn’t guarantee the right to speak in public.

Chang added that “public comment is important to bring voice and shared experience,” and for the majority of speakers this year the proposed change would not have had any impact because the majority of comments have been made about agenda items.

“I do not in any way agree to this policy,” said Gayle Harris, the Republican member of the three-person Policy Subcommittee that also includes Thomas-Farquharson. She said that although her name was listed on the agenda as submitting the revision because it came from the Policy Subcommittee, that she was “totally blindsided by it” when she was notified that a Policy Subcommittee meeting would be taking place.

Harris said the comment policy that was adopted in the fall and is currently in place was one that they all worked very hard on and was a compromise, “and I am very proud that we came to an agreement in a bipartisan way,” She said that when the policy that is now in place was being developed there were multiple revisions, and two attorneys involved, but at the Policy Subcommittee meeting held on May 10, there was 40 minutes to consider the modifications, and a portion of the meeting took place in executive session, for reasons she felt were not clear.

“I think that this is a real mistake and ask Jason and Lorna to go back to the Policy Subcommittee and come up with something that we can feel good about,” Harris said.

She added that some of the speakers about non-agenda items bring their young children and should not have to wait until 9, 10, or 11 o’clock to speak. “I have a problem with that and I hope you do, too,” Harris said, noting that she and everyone else in the room had voted in favor of the current policy in November, with the exception of Renée Kamauf who was not yet on the Board, and Republican Ethan Goldman who was the lone “no” vote.

“What changed that you had to come back six months later? … We had a policy and you’re going to rip it apart,” Harris said.

Democrat Clare Neseralla said she has spent a lot of time researching the issue and reading the letters that have been submitted and comments made by the public. Boards of education in all districts are required to meet once a month and public comment is appropriate and “should enhance rather than hinder” conversation. It’s critical, she said, that comments be permitted on agenda items.

Neseralla suggested the compromise, which was later adopted, of allowing the non-agenda items just once a month, but just after the comments about items that are on the agenda rather than at the end of the meeting.

Chang said the modifications proposed Tuesday night would bring the Board of Education into compliance with other governing bodies, and would be similar to the West Hartford Town Council’s policy of one comment period per month on non-agenda topics. He does not think the Board would be denying people the chance to share their opinions.

“There is a serious concern about student privacy,” Chang said. Some of the comments made on non-agenda items are “student matters which should be addressed by the administration,” and Board members are not able to respond due to state privacy laws.

Many of the Board members expressed concern that the public is allowed to make assertions and even accusations in their comments, which then become part of the record, while Board members are not permitted to respond and provide correction of inaccurate information or defend themselves.

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