Listening to the public is our business
By Sherri Story
I have listened to the school board policy committee meeting from Monday, Nov. 30, and one of the policies presented to be changed was regarding time slots allotted for public speaking.
School Board policy currently states that 30 minutes are to be reserved for public speaking at the beginning of the meetings, giving up to five minutes for each speaker. As the interest in the School Board business has increased, so has the number of speakers desiring to speak been increasing. In trying to continue to limit this time slot to 30 or 45 minutes, the committee seemed to agree that a limit was necessary in order to get this section of the agenda “over with” in order to move on with the business of the board.
I would argue that listening to our stakeholders — the parents, staff and members of the community — is one of the most important pieces of monthly board business. I would also argue that other items that typically fill our agenda should take a backseat to it, not the other way around.
Consider the mandate written in the Bill of Rights, Article 1 Section 2 of the Virginia Constitution: that all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people, that magistrates are their trustees and servants, and at all times amenable to them.
First of all, whatever our power or authority, it is derived from the people and therefore we are to be amenable to them. Some synonyms for amenable are: open, persuadable, responsive and agreeable. Elected officials invested with the trust of the people are therefore to be open, responsive, persuadable and agreeable to listen to the public.
Limiting people’s free speech by arbitrarily assigning a time slot on the agenda for the sake of “getting on to some other business of the board” is an inversion of the very mandate we have been given — to be amenable to the people.
Secondly, three paragraphs of the Virginia Education Code strongly direct all public school boards of Virginia to involve the public — to hear from them their concerns, their opinion, their advice, their knowledge and their experiences. It is the very essence of school board business.
Thirdly, an argument was made for limiting citizens time to speak because there may be children waiting to sing or present something to the board. I would suggest that whenever we invite students to participate, let’s assign them a time slot between 4 and 6 p.m. Let’s put them first. An earlier time slot would also allow them to get home at a reasonable hour.
Lastly, I believe we should be more mindful of the time and effort that presenters put into preparing for their presentations before the board — the time it took them to write and rewrite their opinions, the time it took to be put on the agenda, the time away from home to come and speak, and finally the time they spend waiting to be called upon in order to speak. All these efforts demonstrate a good faith effort toward communicating with us.
Listening to our citizens should be an imperative part of school board business. It shouldn’t be devalued by restrictive time. Suffolk citizens should never have a sense we are just appeasing them to get onto something else more important in the meeting.
Based on these reasons, the only policy change that is justifiable to me is to eliminate the 30-minute arbitrary time limit on public speaking altogether and continue to allow citizens to speak for their five minutes. Citizens are worth our time to listen to what they have to say.
If the overall length of meetings is a concern, we should look for other things in the agenda to cut or move around. Or, maybe it is time the Suffolk School Board starts meeting twice a month like every other school board in the area.
The last thing I believe an elected body should do is limit the public from speaking by manipulating the numbers to fit into a limited time slot.
Rather, let us do whatever it takes to be amenable.
Sherri Story is the School Board representative for the Chuckatuck Borough. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.