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G-C board satisfied with public-comment policy as it stands

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GREENFIELD — Outgoing members of the Greenfield-Central School Board sent a clear message to their successors this week about the board’s somewhat controversial public-comment policy: They like it, and they want it to stay.

The board reaffirmed its public-participation rules Monday in response to a parent who violated the procedure last month by standing up and yelling at the board in the middle of the meeting.

Under the board’s current policy, no spontaneous comments are allowed by the public – and that’s how the policy should stay, outgoing board members Michael Summers, Kent Fisk and Dan Riley said at the last board meeting of the year Monday.

All three gave lengthy statements in support of the board’s policy against unapproved commentary, citing concern for the privacy of students and staff members who might be maligned by an angry community member.

Riley said he sees the need to protect students and staff from unscreened commentary as more important than the public’s “need to gripe.”

“What we don’t want is a forum where our students, teachers, coaches and administrators are called names,” Riley said. “There are no members of our community that wants a child’s name thrown out as a bully when that child may, in fact, be the victim.”

Summers echoed Riley’s sentiments, saying the board should set an example.

“We need to teach our kids that there is respect, that there are proper channels to go through, that there are ways to get your voice heard in a way that’s intelligent, respectful,” he said.

Newly elected board member Ray Kerkhof, who was in the audience Monday, said he understands the board members’ position but still sees room for improvement in the policy.

Kerkhof, who will replace Summers Jan. 1, said during his campaign for school board that he’d heard multiple complaints about the board’s accessibility. The board may be contacted by phone or email, but some members of the community prefer to speak before the board as a whole in a public setting, and that’s the avenue with the most restrictions, Kerkhof said.

Anyone who wishes to address the board must submit a request in writing that includes the topic about which they plan to speak and their stance on that topic. For items already on the agenda, the deadline is noon Friday before the regularly scheduled Monday meeting. To request an item to be put on the agenda, a request must be made a week in advance.

The policy seems designed to discourage members of the public from contacting the board, Kerkhof said.

“School boards got to make the people feel like they’re welcome, and they’ve got access to them to express their view,” he said. “Somewhere there’s a common ground that we have got to find, that we can outreach to the community and the community can outreach to the board members.”

Superintendent Dr. Linda Gellert said Monday several board members expressed a desire to address the policy and why they feel it is appropriate after the November meeting, during which the woman was escorted from the room by police officers.

Board President Retta Livengood and board member Dan Leary, who will remain on the board after the first of the year, agreed it is best to err on the side of caution when providing a public forum.

Livengood pointed out she is available in other ways, including by phone or email, should someone want to voice a concern that might not be appropriate in a public setting.

But requiring so many steps to speak at the meeting might have had the unintended effect of deterring community members from attending all together, Kerkhof said.

“… If people feel like they can come and talk, they’d probably get more people there,” he said.

Kerkhof added that board members from other school boards in the county say a lenient public-comment policy does not result in a free-for-all.

“It seems to be very simple,” he said. “They never had a problem. I think the majority of people would be respectful.”

Kathy Dowling, who will replace Riley to represent District 4, could not be reached for comment.

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