Finding some middle ground on public comment

No one gains if each side digs in its heels and won’t agree to compromise.

As a protector of the First Amendment and as your government watchdog, at times I feel compelled to take on issues that threaten speech or challenge government principles.
    Addressing the public comment policy at school board meetings in my editorial two weeks ago was one of those times.
    In November, the board adopted a new policy specifying a designated “Public Comment” period during the meeting which is the only time the public can address the board.
    I urged the board to reconsider adopting the policy. We see it as limiting the public’s opportunity to address issues directly with the board, especially in the case of controversial issues.
    As part of this new policy, the public is now asked to fill out a request form identifying themselves and the issue they want to address.
    I heavily criticized this as yet another hoop the public has to jump through to address the board about specific issues.
    To his credit, Supt. Klooz called me soon after he saw the editorial. “I guess we struck a nerve,” he said. Yes it did.
    Since that time, Mr. Klooz and I have met twice to see if we can carve out some middle ground on the issue—middle ground that protects public speech and input while protecting the school and board from endangering the rights of students and/or teachers.
    As already mentioned, my biggest concern arises when a controversial issue comes before the board and fills seats in the audience.
    Consider when the designated “Public Comment” is long separated on the agenda from the issue at hand and there is no further opportunity for the public’s input. I can foresee a frustrating situation that benefits neither the public nor the board.
    Here’s the solution we came to agreement on: Adding another public comment period immediately prior to the board taking up what could be considered a controversial issue.
    That allows the public to make remarks on the issue that is about to be discussed and acted on by the board in some manner.
    This provides some middle ground and enough give and take to accommodate all parties.
    He also made another guarantee—that as long as he’s superintendent here, the public comment period will never be removed from a meeting where the board will take action.
    Unfortunately, we are in the midst of societal ill where “I’m right! You’re wrong!” Today,  there’s no room for “agreeing to disagree” and then moving forward in a positive direction.
    Admittedly, Mr. Klooz and I did not agree on every issue discussed. But we both heard, discussed and respected each other’s views without going away mad.
    The biggest plea Mr. Klooz made to school patrons, the public and taxpayers: “Let’s engage in open and honest communication.” He urged people to talk to administration or board members long before an issue blows up in everyone’s face.
    That’s what happened when an hours-long discussion ensued over assignments for music teachers for the 2017-18 school year. (He noted he’d done his research before applying for the Chase County job.)
    Those were discussions he said should have been held in executive session to protect the rights of the teachers involved. That’s why he wants to protect the school, the board and ultimately the taxpayer from the possibility of litigation.
    Mr. Klooz said the school’s legal counsel advised them to adopt the public comment policy in an effort to protect against such situations.
    “We want people to know we are going to listen,” he said. People aren’t always going to agree, but the key is open communication, he added.
    Finding middle ground is also a test of trust. He noted both sides of this issue, or any other, need to build trust with each other.
    If we don’t believe in something, then pretty soon there’s nothing to believe in. Then what do we have?
    I believe that working together to find this solution is far more beneficial for all parties involved. No one gains if each side digs in its heels and won’t agree to compromise.
    Ultimately, we all want each and every student who walks though those school doors to get the education they deserve and are entitled to.

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