Years ago, when I first attended a WL school board meeting, I found it uninviting. The unwelcoming tone started right at the top of the agenda which said that the school board “will not entertain questions during a board meeting.” The school board also seemed to be intentionally obscuring what was being done. Items on the agenda had vague titles and were voted on in rapid succession. For example, at the April 2019 meeting where the school board voted to fire all the first-year teachers at WLES and WLIS, the agenda item was titled “enrollment projections.” Most items being voted on received no discussion; the only pauses between votes were for school board members to pay compliments to the superintendent or to each other for the great job they were doing. No one asked questions. The school board just rubber stamped every item up for a vote.
What is the purpose of having public school board meetings if not to inform and seek public input? Our school board treated public meetings as an inconvenient requirement of the Open Door Law rather than as an opportunity to improve our schools. My view is that school board meetings are where community members should come to hear both sides of an issue. School board members should publicly question the superintendent on why he is proposing a change. Community members should be invited to speak to provide their views on the issue. School board members should discuss suggestions provided by the community and then explain why they are voting for or against. My view is that public input is essential to enabling the school board to make informed decisions.
The school board’s lack of community engagement was on clear display in their handling of the pandemic reopening plan in the summer of 2020. Our students finished the 2019-2020 school year virtually. From March through the summer, parents and students anxiously awaited a discussion of what the 2020-2021 school year would look like. The board made no attempt to seek public input. On July 7, the school board released their reopening plan and held a school board meeting the next day to approve it. Frustration with the initial plan was high because it mandated a single approach and did not provide families with any alternative options. The board allowed people to speak at the meeting (and many people did), but their voices were ignored and the board voted to approve the plan immediately without considering any of the recommended improvements. It took petitions and community outcry to get the school board to push pause, listen, and revise the reopening plan to meet the expectations of parents and students.
Treating a school board meeting as an event for a public announcement without having gathered any public input is a clear mistake. Our community is invested in the success of our schools. We want to be part of the discussion and not just informed of decisions made behind closed doors. Backroom decisions and actively trying to avoiding public input have been plaguing our district for years.
I want the community to be informed and have an active voice in our school district. School board meetings should be inviting and responsive. We need to develop a meeting culture where board members interact respectfully (both with each other and with community members) and enthusiastically welcome community recommendations for improvement. Rather than wait for people to come forward, I want school board members to seek broad community input before voting on important issues.