By Tessa Raebeck
The Sag Harbor Board of Education passed a revision to its public input policy Monday night, opting to remove a controversial sentence that would have given the board the right to suspend community members’ privilege to speak if their behavior at meetings was deemed inappropriate.
Through the new policy, the board hopes to encourage public participation at meetings.
The goal is “to allow the public to have their input,” said Theresa Samot, president of the school board. The new policy, drafted by board members Chris Tice and Mary Anne Miller, simplifies the language of the policy and the process of community engagement, she said.
The previous policy required the public to sign up with the district clerk before noon on the Friday prior to board meetings in order to participate in the first public input session. Under the new policy, the public can sign up at any time prior to the start of the meeting. The sign-up sheet and the meeting’s agenda will be available on a desk outside the entrance to the Pierson library, where board meetings are held.
During the first reading of the policy at the May 7 board meeting, board member Susan Kinsella inserted an additional sentence to the draft: “If a member of the community fails to conduct themselves appropriately or violates the rules set forth herein, the board has the right to suspend that community member’s privilege of speaking during public input.”
“I’m not in favor of leaving that in there because I think it’s redundant,” said board member Mary Anne Miller, recalling a paragraph in the original draft that addresses what is considered unacceptable conduct for all participants.
It states: “All speakers are to conduct themselves in a civil and respectful manner. Obscene language, libelous statements, threats of violence, statements advocating racial, religious, or other forms of prejudice will not be tolerated.”
“But it doesn’t provide for recourse,” Kinsella said of the first draft. “It says what is not tolerated, but it doesn’t provide for any recourse if somebody does something wrong.”
Kinsella recalled a meeting during her previous term on the board when members of the community were “screaming and yelling.”
“I’m not thinking of anything that’s happened recently,” she said. “But I remember that night and it should never have happened. I think there should be some kind of recourse if it should ever happen again.”
The board agreed that such behavior was unacceptable for any participant of a meeting or discussion. Regarding the suspension of speaking privileges following such misconduct, Miller said, “It should be all meeting members — board members and community members — if that’s what we’re going to do.”
“We’re addressing here the policy on public participation,” said Kinsella. “We can in another policy address board and others’ participation, but this is public participation.”
Miller questioned the implementation of a suspension, asking how the board would decide its duration and the bounds of appropriate behavior.
“It’s subject to some sort of interpretation,” she said. “What is considered appropriate would be one person’s view of that versus another.”
Miller suggested removing those two lines before approving the policy. The board brainstormed ways to enforce acceptable, civil behavior without including the right to suspend members from public input.
“I’m okay if you want to take it out,” said Kinsella of the added sentence. “I just always remember that meeting.”
Board member Sandy Kruel agreed. “I have no problem taking it out either,” she said. “But, I just believe that we need to be stronger as a board to adhere to respectful conversations, not disrespecting one another or administrators or anything else.”
Kinsella made a motion to adopt the policy “as it was prior to that additional sentence” and the revised policy was accepted. Tice reminded the public that community members can now sign up to participate in public input at any time prior to the start of meetings.
During the second public input session, community member Helen Atkinson-Barnes voiced her favor of the board’s decision to revert back to the policy’s original wording.
“As much as I am in favor of respectful dialogue,” said Atkinson-Barnes. “I don’t think we want to give the impression to the public that the board is opposed to criticism.”
In other school news, the board decided to fill the assistant principal position at Pierson Middle School left vacated by Barbara Bekermus.
The board also discussed looking into the expense of adopting a re-registration process, to ensure that students remain in the district during their tenure at Sag Harbor Schools.
Thanks to a $1,000 gift from the American Music Festival of Sag Harbor, the Pierson Music Department will be purchasing Smart Music Software, an innovative music education program.
Following dramatic changes to the U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations on cafeterias, Sag Harbor passed inspection on the first attempt, “which was a feat,” according to John O’Keefe, the school business administrator.
The next school board meeting will be held at 6 p.m. on Monday, June 3. It will include a presentation on the International Baccalaureate (IB) program.