By Heather Graves
GREEN BAY – The school board will again enforce the 5-minute time limit on public comments, something Board President Brenda Warren said the board has moved away from as of late.
“I’ve been getting a fair amount of feedback from multiple places – community, staff, administration – with concerns about our public engagement time,” Warren said. “I’d like to see us go back to that 5-minute time limit and hold to it. It’s important to have that opportunity to have the public speak to us, but my concern with not holding to 5 minutes is that we end up with public comment time that’s incredibly long. We’ve had meetings that last until 11 p.m. because we have 2 hours of public comment time.”
She said enforcing the time limit would help create balance in terms of respecting people who come to school board meetings and respecting the people who want to speak.
“For instance, one night we had a lot of public comments on two issues that we were working on and we had a lot of public comment on one of them, which required the other group to wait probably 2 hours before their turn to speak came up,” Warren said. “They expressed frustration at the meeting about that. We also have guest speakers that come, and when we have a 2-hour open forum or 2-hour public engagement that occurs before their turn to speak, they are here longer than what they expected sometimes.”
Many trustees agreed with Warren.
“I have heard the same comments from a variety of sources,” said Trustee Eric Vanden Heuvel. “When I was talking to the reps from Hazard, Young (the search firm for the new superintendent), they mentioned that one of the candidates for superintendent had actually mentioned that in one of the very initial conversations when they were considering to apply. They asked about presentation times from watching our videos.”
Trustee Laura McCoy said she has heard the public comment time has “gotten out of hand.”
“Our agendas are densely packed and I don’t see that changing anytime soon,” McCoy said. “They are also going to be packed with important work. The voice of the public is very important as well, but I think you should be able to make your point in 5 minutes.”
McCoy said enforcing the time limit will help shorten the meetings, something all board members agree they’d like to see.
Trustee Rhonda Sitnikau said she’d like to see shorter meetings, but doesn’t see the public engagement time is the only thing contributing to long meetings.
“I have been here for a little over two years and we have not had anything beyond that time and then there was a speaker who came forward and asked for 15 minutes and we granted that,” Sitnikau said. “And at that time we discussed by doing this we were going to set a precedent because we can’t just give you unilaterally 15 minutes.”
She said it’s important to note when people have spoken for longer then 5 minutes, it’s when there were significant changes happening, like closing a school.
“We do some things that I feel dramatically affect our families, our community, and I just want to make sure it’s known I’m not interested in limiting public engagement,” Sitnikau said. “I’m not interesting in limiting individual board members from fighting for what they believe is right. I’m also not interested in signing on to a narrative that it’s getting out of hand.”
She said she isn’t against the 5-minute limit, but is discouraged by the narrative of the conversation.
“I’m hoping that (the narrative) isn’t that we are trying to lessen public engagement and discussion,” Sitnikau said. “Because someone may think that, they could possibly come up with that conclusion and I just want to make sure that that’s not ever going to be the goal here.”
Trustee Kristina Shelton said the board should think about ways to better communicate to the community.
She said if they have more to say that goes beyond the 5 minutes they can submit written testimony.
“Also, if we are looking at big decisions that the board is going to make, something like the Jefferson, Fort Howard situation, we can look into other community engagement sessions,” Shelton said. “Then that sort of moves it out of the regular school board business.”
The 5-minute time limit will be enforced starting at the board’s next meeting, Jan. 6.
“To me, the public forum, public engagement time is not a time to solve the problems, it’s the time to illuminate what the concerns are for people in our community,” Warren said. “I think we can do better work if we aren’t exhausted.”