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School board, public could both do better

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I watched last week’s school board meeting from the comfort of my home, a feat that was possible because the schools have the technology and the commitment to make their meetings available to the broadest possible audience.

Truth be told, a live stream on YouTube is not a bad way to cover a school board meeting. At home, if the board is doing some routine business, I can make a peanut butter and cracker and grab a diet ginger ale out of the fridge. Even better, the live stream, with its excellent sound and close-ups of speakers, is an improvement over the back of the board’s meeting room, which is where the media have been exiled to for a reason that no one has explained to me.

But as I watched last week’s meeting, and rewatched some parts the next day, some things stood out. For one, the school board sometimes treats itself and its paid staff better than it treats the public.

For each item or group of items on its agenda, the school board allots a certain amount time for discussion and possible action. But the school board never holds itself to that time allotment. Last week, for example, the board gave itself and staff 15 minutes for a discussion and action on a proposal to alter the bell schedules at school. After an hour, the discussion was still going on.

Now compare that to the public comment section of the monthly school board meetings. The board gives each speaker — a member of the public — three minutes to speak his or her mind. And after three minutes, a bell rings — loudly, I might add — and then the speaker is summarily dismissed. I wondered, while watching last week’s meeting, if the school board would silence a state lawmaker or county commissioner after three minutes.

The school board makes its own rules, of course, but it ought to remember that those public speakers are the people paying the school system’s bills.

Speaking of the public, my support of their right to speak for more than three minutes is not necessarily an endorsement of what they say or how they say it. One speaker last week had what I thought was a legitimate complaint about the school system’s investigation into allegations of grade-fixing at Clayton High School. The school board had promised a full accounting of what happened, and the community is still waiting for that accounting, the speaker said.

That’s fair.

And I was OK, though a little uncomfortable, when that same speaker singled out school board board Tracie Zukowski, accusing her of wanting Bennett Jones out as principal of Clayton High School.

But in my opinion, the speaker crossed the line when, without evidence, he accused Ms. Zukowski of a host of crimes, including racketeering. I felt sorry for Ms. Zukowski, and I never feel sorry for politicians.

Beyond that, school board meetings can be unbearably long. Last week’s meeting started at 5 p.m. and lasted an exhausting four and a half hours, long enough for me to miss the Heels’ win over Virginia Tech. But that’s not just me being selfish. The larger point is that good decisions, good policies, likely don’t come over the course of a four-and-a-half-hour meeting that begins at 5 o’clock.

I feel sorry too for the staff who must attend these lengthy board meetings. Like me, they’re getting paid, I guess, or maybe they get comp time later; I certainly hope so. But when they’re stuck in the central office until all hours of the night, they’re away from their families, and no pay is worth that.

Which leads me to my final observation. A school board meeting is only as good as its chairman, and the school board’s current chairman, Todd Sutton, strikes me as a little too reluctant to use the power of his gavel to keep meetings moving along. At the very least, he could cut off debate when it becomes unproductive, and he could certainly encourage the board and staff to follow the allotted times on the agenda.

If he’s not going to do that, Mr. Sutton should silence the bell that cuts off members of the public. Otherwise, he’s maintaining a double standard — a stringent, almost rude one for the public and an entirely forgiving one for the board and its staff.

Scott Bolejack is editor of the Johnstonian News. Reach him at sbolejack@johnstoniannews.com.

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