Welcome to Laurie Goodman's blog. I use this space to share news and opinions about education and schools in Ridgewood, the state of New Jersey and the nation, in addition to other issues I'm personally interested in. I invite you to share your thoughts, feelings, questions or opinions, too, by posting comments on any blog entry. Please observe basic courtesy -- keep your comments focused on issues, no personal attacks or bullying, please. Contact me directly at: lauriegood@mac.com

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A reader asks about public comments @ BOE meetings

Posted by a reader:

Is there a reason why someone--anyone--on the BoE doesn't engage any of the citizen speakers who address the members during the public comment portion of a meeting? Ms. Maskin stood and delivered a comprehensive OPINION at the most recent meeting and not a peep was heard from the Board. Why not challenge her on some of her points? My assumption is that you guys know at least as much as she does--why not challenge her perspectives with some of your own? I'm not suggesting that this be done in a disrespectful manner. Rather, have a public dialogue with these critics who just want to be heard AND acknowledged. Responding to points made at a Board meeting on a blog the following day is like swinging at a pitch after it's in the catcher's glove.

The public view is that nothing gets done at these meetings except talk, talk, talk. Decisions seem to be made while the citizens are not watching--which leads to distrust and frustration. Obviously, there's enough of that going on right now.


Laurie said...

Your question is one that I used to ask all the time. I commented on a similar question a couple of weeks ago in my post about questions asked during public comment. While the lack of two-way conversation at Board meetings is not a matter of policy (there's nothing in the policy that explicitly prohibits speaking to the public), the policy does say that comments must be directed to the presiding officer, and the presiding officer may ask a board member to answer a question. Other than that, the reason seems to be more a matter of time, driven by the need to keep the meeting moving (there are consent items which must be discussed and voted on) and not get bogged down in argument or debate. Also, to be fair, if one person is going to be answered, then everyone should be answered...and this could be problematic.

HOWEVER, the point is well taken. This dynamic – the limited opportunity for two-way communication – is something I would like to improve. I’m not yet sure how to do it.

One step we’re taking is the BOE’s upcoming Communications Open Forum on March 3. I hope that evening can begin a dialogue about how we communicate with each other. This issue of public comment at Board meetings will be a topic that night.

As to the perception that “decisions seem to be made while the citizens are not watching…” I can see where it might look that way. Board members receive background info that the public does not see. We receive it Friday, review it all weekend, and we may ask questions or get clarification on Monday. As a new Board member, I need to remind myself that if I get a question answered on Monday afternoon, perhaps I should ask that question or express that concern again, in public, at the meeting. On the one hand, it feels awkward to repeat a conversation, but on the other hand, more of these conversations (“the deliberative process”) should be happening in public. I do believe that some spirited arguments would probably help our credibility, and I discussed this at our Board “retreat” last Fall.

As for this Blog…this is certainly an experiment. I’m not the first Board of Ed member to do it (I follow a few Board member blogs in other towns). I saw it as one way I could improve my own communication and the techie aspect is one I’m comfortable with. Am I swinging late at pitches? Yes, but at least I’m up at the plate and in the game. There’s nothing worse than being called out without ever taking a swing!

Anonymous said...

The public view is that nothing gets done at these meetings except talk, talk, talk.

The public view is also that nothing gets said during public comment except snipe, snipe, snipe.

Some people show up to BOE meeting after BOE meeting just so they can step up to the microphone with another snarky, nasty comment aimed at the BOE.

It's no wonder they get ignored; gives me a headache just listening to their drivel on Channel 77.

Anonymous said...


I agree with you to an extent. Many of the comments voiced by citizen commenters at BoE meetings are snarky, snipey and in extreme cases, rude. But I think what we are seeing and hearing is a result of the Board's refusal to engage people in discussion. Instead of responding, Board members sit stonefaced, showing no signs of concurrence, disagreement, or interest in what is being stated at the microphone. I think I'm accurate to state that many (maybe most) of our Ridgewood neighbors would rather be anywhere else than in front of a microphone talking on television.

Laurie's comment that some sort of "rule of order" exists that limits comment/discussion seems to me to be anachronistic at best and evidence of a power-hungry Board president at worst.

Ridgewood citizens need to feel as though their opinions count. Many citizens have legitimate questions and concerns about the education our children receive. The temptation to hide behind arbitrary Board rules of engagement disenfranchises citizens and should be avoided at all costs.

After the Board acknowledges the educational hopes and fears of the public we can start worrying about manners and decorum.

Laurie said...

As I've said, it's my opinion that the current situation -- in terms of opportunities (or lack thereof) for two-way, real dialogue -- is not ideal. I absolutely agree that community members need to feel as though their opinions count. I want that to happen. But maybe twice-monthly Board meetings with business-packed agendas aren't the best place for a discussion or debate. As I also said (above), let's talk about this at the open forum on March 3.

I don't get how my explanation was "anachronistic." And I wouldn't say the "rules of engagement" are arbitrary -- they're intended to keep some order and keep the meetings from veering off the agenda. Instead of focusing on these meetings, maybe there are other ideas for alternate ways to engage the public "for real?" Do you have any? I'm open...

Anonymous said...

I should have proofread more closely. Your comments are not anachronistic; the rules of engagement are. And I do think that the Board chair, president, whatever we call him/her established these rules to maintain order and control of the meeting, and while doing so, sacrificed public participation.

Here's one suggestion. Rearrange the room and stop using the “sharing square” formation at your meetings. BoE meetings are like watching the classic play 12 Angry Men without any of the great acting. The public meeting is not a performance and the citizens attending are not an audience. The Board should sit at a long rectangular table at the from of the room. The superintendent should sit there as well. Presenters should sit facing the Board and speak when necessary or when called upon. Just like school (when we went to school).

Here’s another. Limit presentations from staff or outside experts to 12-15 minutes. If you can’t make your point within this time frame it’s either too large a topic for oral presentation or the presenter needs to learn how to use PowerPoint more efficiently. Too many times I’ve watched presentations where the speaker simply reads, verbatim, the slides as they flash on the screen. This is a waste of time and it doesn’t create any context for understanding the material.

Here’s another. Rethink the time limitations on individual public comments. The bell that is used now is obnoxious. Do you remember how dopey Tom Brokaw seemed during the Presidential Debate he moderated as he tried to limit the responses of the candidates? You guys are getting pretty close to that. You need to learn to listen to the words–-not just count them.

Here’s another, for those of us who watch meetings on television. Please figure out how to use the audio and visual equipment properly. I realize you may not have much control over the video portion, although after 10 years of doing this one would think some improvement would occur. On the audio side, however, most of the people sitting at the table are completely oblivious to the microphones placed before them. If the speaker does not speak into the microphone nobody in TV land can hear them. The Village Council does the same thing and it drives me crazy. That’s an easy one to fix.

Laurie said...

Those are all good ideas. I don't think I can argue with any one of them. Thanks!