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Citizens Assail CAB Public Speaking Rule
September 26, 2007 - Even if the noisy air conditioning unit had been allowed to run during last week's meeting, the heat still would have been on members of the Charles A. Beard School Board.
More than 70 people attended the September 18 meeting of the CAB School Board, a two-hour standing-room-only affair. Temporarily shelving a new policy that limits public comments to 20 minutes, the board spent nearly half of the meeting hearing from 11 people on a variety of topics.
A new policy on public comment at board meetings, which took effect September 1, drew criticism from three of the night's speakers. Wayne Township resident Jamie Maxwell took issue with the new policy's requirement that people wanting to speak at board meetings have to sign up at least five days in advance.
"Please know and understand that there are lots of taxpayers … in this school corporation that are not pleased with your new sign-up-in-advance-jump-through-all-the-hoops policy," he told Board President Mike Fruth. "They view it as a mechanism to strongly discourage anyone speaking at a public meeting." Maxwell said he had spoken about CAB's new policy with former longtime school board members he knew from another school corporation where he had worked for 25 years. He told Fruth these people thought CAB's new policy was "the most ridiculous thing they've heard in their life."
"They went on to say that they stayed at public board meetings as long as it took and they listened to the taxpayers, the school patrons, the parents," Maxwell continued. "They let them speak, and they were there if it took till midnight or one in the morning." He also said he had someone describe the school corporation to him as the largest business in the community, with taxpayers being stockholders who have a right to address the board during public meetings.
Fruth said that Rushville, Eastern Hancock, Greenfield, South Henry and Fayette County school corporations all have "similar policies" to CAB's new one. "I am a firm believer that if we do have a policy, I believe we need to follow that policy," he said. "If we don't like that policy, then the board would need to change that policy."
Maxwell said he didn't think Fruth had followed CAB's former public comment policy the month before when he called Maxwell out of order for addressing the board at the August 21 meeting without having signed up in advance. The policy in effect then - according to CAB Public Access Officer Jena Schmidt -stated that even people who had not signed up beforehand would be given a chance to speak at meetings.
"You didn't follow the policy at the last meeting when you told me I was out of order," Maxwell said. "You did not follow your own board policy. So, who was more out of order, you or me?"
"If I erred, I apologize," Fruth said.
Like Maxwell, Bob Myers, the school corporation's superintendent from 1967-1974, took issue with having to sign up in advance to speak at meetings. "This really hit me wrong," he said. Despite dealing with a number of controversial issues, including school consolidations and school closures, Myers said he and his two predecessors, Lyle O. Bell and L.E. Rogers, didn't stifle public comment during the more than 50 years they led the school corporation.
"We never had a policy like that," Myers said. "And when people would attend board meetings, they had the opportunity to speak to the board." He told Fruth he didn't think the new policy would be necessary as a way of maintaining control if Fruth "handled the meeting properly from (his) standpoint."
Banner owner and Publisher Eric Cox, who told the board he was there to speak as a taxpayer, said he echoed the comments made by Maxwell and Myers. "They should respect you and you should respect them," Cox said of the relationship between the public and the school board. "These people are hard workers, they have a mighty tax burden to satisfy, and they're meeting it. And I think that you owe them the chance to speak to you."
"I think it's really important … that you take these people's considerations into account," Cox continued. "Don't treat them like children. They can behave well, as you see, and they deserve the right to voice their concerns to the board - every meeting if they want to."
While he said he understood that allowing all members of the public who want to address the board to speak could mean longer meetings for board members, Cox had a suggestion. "Just a few years ago, you reduced your meeting schedule from two meetings a month to one," he reminded the board. "That was your option, but now you can't complain about how long meetings take. So, you can meet twice a month if you want to - you used to - and I think that would give everyone an ample opportunity to address their elected officials and to see that their wishes are at least taken into account."
Near the end of the meeting, board member Kevin Knott addressed concerns about the new public comment policy. As for extending the 20 minutes of public comment when necessary, Knott had no problem with that. "How long will we be here?" Knott asked. "For me, it's as long as it takes." However, he did not seem ready to get rid of the requirement that people wanting to speak sign up in advance.
Like Fruth, Knott said he had also checked with four other area school corporations and found that they require persons wanting to speak at board meetings to sign up at least seven days in advance, two days more than CAB's new policy. He also said two of these four other school corporations only allow a maximum of three minutes per speaker, two minutes less than CAB.
In other issues, Knightstown resident Tom Haase, the first person to address the board at last week's meeting, urged the board to reconsider its decision to drop its local insurance agent, Chad Leakey of Leakey Insurance, for a New Castle agent. He said the former superintendent's decision to switch agents on the same day he turned in his own letter of resignation - an act taken without express approval from the school board - seemed "relatively unethical."
"If it was such a big issue, I would think you would have done that instantly," Haase said of the decision to drop Leakey. Saying the Leakeys have been good supporters of CAB and the community over the years, Haase went on to take issue with the manner in which the board handled the matter at its August meeting.
Haase told Fruth he was disappointed that at the end of last month's meeting, CAB Business Manager David Bundy had been allowed to "maybe drag Leakey through the mud a little," but that Fruth abruptly adjourned the meeting without allowing Leakey to respond. “I thought that was just - I thought arrogance just totally outplayed any sense of fairness at all," Haase said.
Knightstown High School student Anthony Hibbert was the final person to address the board at last week's meeting. With the poor condition of CAB's track having already led to the cancellation of next spring's home track meets, Hibbert said the ramifications could be even greater.
"We're also in danger of losing the track team," Hibbert said. "Not getting the track repaired will cause athletes to drop out of track and increase their chances of roaming the streets and getting into trouble." He provided the board with petitions signed by students, parents and school faculty encouraging the board to have the track repaired.
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