VALPARAISO | Public comment has long been a controversial topic at Valparaiso Community Schools board meetings, and a change in the board's policy on public comment already is drawing more public comment.
Public comment was one of several issues Superintendent Michael Berta offered to the board at its meeting last week, and Berta said it was one of the toughest policy issues he and board attorney Dave Hollenbeck discussed. Much of the school's policy manual needs updating, but Berta said he doubts he will complete the task by the time he retires Aug. 6.
The School Board now allows public comment at the end of its agenda and during a monthly workshop session added a couple of years ago after criticism it did not seek public input on issues. Residents are limited to speaking no more than five minutes on agenda items only and a total of 30 minutes of comments is the maximum allowed under the policy.
Those and other restrictions on signing in before speaking and notifying the administration in advance if someone wishes to speak on a topic not on the agenda have not been strictly adhered to although the five-minute rule is pretty closely monitored by President Mark Maassel.
Berta said he asked other superintendents in the area about their policies for public comment at meetings and found only minor differences. One exception allowed comment on agenda items at the start of the meeting and other comments at the end.
Pointing out that the discussion meetings added in the fall of 2012 offer the opportunity for public comment before the board takes action at its regular meeting, Berta said he recommended reducing the comments to three minutes but said they could be on anything related to the schools and educating the students without having to notify the administration ahead of time or sign in.
"However, the rules are the rules, and, when your three minutes are up, they are up," he said. "I've worked in three school corporations and the underlying factor is civility. There needs to be respect for the process and a process in place. We should be sticking to the business of education. If we are not educating the kids, we shouldn't be sitting here."
Board member Jim Jorgensen said the board decided to sit on the floor level during the workshop meetings rather than the raised "Supreme Court positions." He called the policy changes "an ongoing, evolving process" and added, "The purpose of public comments and questions should be to facilitate the process of making good decisions."
Board member James Sarkisian said civility is an issue throughout the country but "reasonable minds can disagree without being uncivil. When someone takes the time to come in and comment, we should listen to them."
A couple of people criticized limiting a person's comments when the person had something really relevant to say. Maassel said he does allow some leeway, but doesn't think anyone's comments should be considered more important than another's and it is unfair to let one person monopolize the comments at the expense of others.