Kyrene School District Governing Board appears on course to change the structure of its biweekly meetings and may limit public comment to one session a month once the new fiscal year begins July 1.
The board last week appeared likely to approve a system where one of its two monthly meetings would be extended study sessions focusing on certain issues and topics while the other would be devoted to any formal actions the board needs to take.
Although three board members appeared to favor the new set-up advanced by President Michael Myrick, a formal vote on the new format was deferred until the board’s next meeting on March 26 to give Michelle Fahey a chance to weigh in. She was not at last week’s session.
Myrick has proposed that the study session include both the superintendent’s regular updates and the usual spotlights the administration arranges to call the board’s attention to special programs, staff and student achievements and similar matters.
“Typically, this meeting would be used to share information in depth with our board prior to the board actions which would occur during your regular board meeting,” Myrick said, although he added that there may be an occasional need for some board action on items that need immediate attention.
The new structure is partly aimed at shortening the length of meetings, but some members also favored limiting public comment to only the study sessions and not when the board will be voting on matters.
State law does not require school boards, municipal councils or similar bodies to provide an opportunity for the public to speak, although board member Kevin Walsh and Myrick said people will still get the opportunity to speak at least at one board meeting every month. Any individual’s comments are limited to three minutes by law.
Kyrene parent Cathy Matsumoto also suggested the board revise the so-called blue cards that people must fill out in order to address the board. Her proposed revisions would provide more information on what the speaker wanted to address – particularly if it was an agenda item on which the board planned a vote or whether it was an issue unrelated to the agenda.
She also proposed that the board follow the example of the Mesa Public Schools Governing Board and schedule citizen comment at the end of the meeting rather than the middle, as Kyrene does now in order to accommodate parents of young children.
“We would never get rid of the blue card public comments section,” Myrick said. “I think it’s vital to our community to hear that unfiltered voice. It’s actually one of my favorite parts of the meeting. I don’t know why, but I just feel like it’s raw. It’s pure and I love it. So that won’t go away.”
But it is apparent the board will reduce the opportunities for public comment.
Board member John King said he liked reserving one meeting a month for votes and other business.
“I think it’s really important to make the distinction that these board meetings are the time for the board to take care of board business,” King said. “They are open to the public. But in addition, they are not public meetings. In other words, they are not meetings that are controlled and managed and directed by the public.”
King also proposed that the public not be allowed to comment at all during the board’s retreats.
King said retreats lately have been marred by audience interference.
“I have some concerns about the retreats and the way that they’ve been going lately. Certainly, it’s intended as a public meeting, but when we have people in those meetings that are disruptive in carrying on, carrying on whatever they’re doing, it is distracting and I’m uncomfortable. And so, I think we as a board really need to understand what we want to do about that, how we want to manage that going forward.”
King admitted, “We’ve got a challenge because they are public meetings.”
Myrick agreed, stating “It’s not a time for the public to provide input in a retreat.”
Added King: “The retreats to me are really important. They’re very important, especially because if we’re getting training or something like that, it’s really important to focus on that training.
“It’s kind of hard to do that when you’re uncomfortable about saying anything because you know it’s going to come back and haunt you someday. I want to feel comfortable that we’ll run those kinds of meetings that we can have civil but important and good discussion. I don’t know that we can do that all the time,” King added
Myrick noted, “Sometimes at the retreats you may be a little measured in some of the things you discuss or it’s not as open as a free flow, especially when in the past we’ve had ideas shared that were just ideas and yet 20 seconds after the meeting was over, it was all over social media.”
While Myrick said the issue was “something we have to work through,” it’s not likely the study sessions can legally be held in private.
The state open meetings law allows public bodies to meet in executive session for a limited number of reasons, including personnel matters, discussion of records that are exempt from public disclosure; legal advice; discussion of leasing, selling or buying land or buildings; or discussion of labor negotiations.
King suggested that the audience at a retreat could be advised there is no opportunity for public comment.
“I’m just beginning to see more and more and more where we’re having distractions that we should not be having because we can’t get done what we need to get done,” King said. “Maybe there is some sort of script we can read prior to the retreat that just reinforces that while it’s a public meeting, it’s not open for public dialogue.”
Both board members Kevin Walsh and Margaret Pratt favored Myrick’s overall suggestion for devoting one regular meeting to a study session and the other to votes.
He said he liked the idea of giving the public more time to offer feedback between the informational and the business meetings. He also suggested that citizens be allowed to submit written comments that would be incorporated in the public record.
“I’m not saying get rid of the call to the public, but offering that as an opportunity,” Walsh said.
Walsh also said he understood that retreats pose challenges.
“I understand that there are always challenges,” Walsh said. “I think as a public school district, we have it harder than private schools. We have a lot more accountability. We are accountable to the public. So, we just have to work within those realities.
“That’s not to say that we shouldn’t have procedures that make sure that we’re not being disrupted,” Walsh continued. “Of course, we need to get the work done. but I just want to make sure that the community recognizes that we, I think, hold ourselves to that standard. And I’m glad that you’re leading us in that direction,” Walsh added.
Board member Margaret Pratt said she liked Myrick’s overall idea and also favored incorporating into the public record written comments from people who might not have been at a meeting.