If you attend any meetings of the North East School Board, you’ll likely notice something right away, it’s the atmosphere. It’s hard to put your finger on it, but the board appears distant, members of the public appear to be viewed as a necessary nuisance, you might almost say the feeling is adversarial. Why is that? It shouldn’t be that way and it doesn’t have to be.
Board members are our representatives
Members of the school board are our elected representatives, making decisions on our behalf on issues related to the operation and funding of the public schools. Since costs for everything are rising rapidly it’s extremely important to be sure dollars are spent wisely and only on items that are necessary. When school budgets increase and proposals are put forward to raise taxes, it should surprise no one on the board that questions will arise. Board members, as our representatives, should be very forthcoming in explaining the reasons for the increase in considerable detail. This should not be looked upon as a burden, but as their responsibility, it’s their job.
Make it easier for the public to ask questions and get answers
During school board meetings in North East, there are two specific periods when public comments are allowed. Recent meetings have shown those comments are not acknowledged by the board in any way nor is there any indication they have any bearing on ensuing decisions. Questions posed during the public comment period are not answered by any board members. It makes you wonder if there is a point to having the public participation period at all.
Where is the public discussion?
Items on the board agenda are all prefaced by “It is recommended that the Board approve …” and in every case in the last couple of meetings, the board, without any discussion at the public meeting, votes unanimously in favor of the item. Who is making that recommendation in the agenda? How does every board member know whether the recommendation makes sense? Did each board member study the issue independently or was there a discussion held somewhere else previously? If so, doesn’t that mean deliberation took place?
Right up front in the PA Sunshine Act it states:
The General Assembly finds that the right of the public to be present at all meetings of agencies and to witness the deliberation, policy formulation and decisionmaking of agencies is vital to the enhancement and proper functioning of the democratic process and that secrecy in public affairs undermines the faith of the public in government and the public’s effectiveness in fulfilling its role in a democratic society.
In the Sunshine Act FAQ it further explains:
… voting members of an agency are not permitted to deliberate except at a public meeting. In other words, agency members exchanging opinions about an upcoming vote or encouraging other agency members to vote a particular way in an email discussion or a discussion held via social media would violate the Sunshine Act.
This lack of any discussion related to agenda items at the board meetings is why members of the public feel like the the board is operating without their input or oversight and may be violating the Sunshine Act.
Has the school board always operated this way?
During the Covid lockdowns, with zoom meetings and all of the associated changes, it’s possible procedures were modified and perhaps the resumption of public in-person meetings should have triggered a return to more regular operations, however, the board may have done things like this all along. Those who attended earlier meetings may be able to comment on this. In any case, it would seem things need to change now.
The public wants to know and the board needs to explain
Members of the public want to be a part of the process and school board members elected by the public should be ready and willing to explain what they are doing on the public’s behalf. Both sides should be working together as a team, not as adversaries.
The public should be able to ask questions during a meeting and the board should provide answers. Making this easy interaction difficult can quickly escalate differences and misunderstandings, leaving the public with few options other than resorting to legal measures. That benefits no one. If the board can remember their position as representatives and try to work with the public instead of independent of the public, meetings could become more productive and less contentious, at least that’s the hope.
Will we see a new, more cooperative openness in place for the next meeting? With a meeting coming up very soon, we’ll find out.