New Paltz School Board public comment process being refined

The transition from virtual to physical meetings is causing some reflection on how business is done. For members of the New Paltz School Board, it’s time to revise how public comment is reviewed. During the height of the pandemic closures last year, comments could only be submitted via an online portal; these were reviewed and sometimes read aloud during the meeting. The board president was given significant leeway in deciding what to read each meeting, and that resulted in a perception that the process was in some way unfair. In an effort to resolve those concerns, trustees are looking to establishing a consistent process for as long as meetings are again in person.

In the draft process discussed during the July 21 meeting, those who attend the meetings and sign up will have two or three minutes to speak, with a maximum of half an hour devoted to public comment. This process would be guided by the public comment policy, which gives the president latitude to cut the comment period short to ensure that all necessary business is conducted. The idea of a large timer, visible to all in attendance, was also raised.

As for comments submitted in writing, they will have to be to the district clerk by noon. There’s a policy that forbids mentioning employees by name, or the identity of minors who submit comments and that deadline allows for review. The plan would allow for written comments to be read aloud after people who make the trip get their chance to speak. In the alternative, those written comments would be printed and made available for review at the meeting. There does not appear to be any plan to make those public comments available on the district’s website, and a freedom of information request for that information may be necessary if one is not in attendance. The process being developed appears to be based on the assumption that the audience for public comment is not other members of the public, but the trustees themselves. To that end, it was made clear that all comments received in writing are distributed to each of these elected officials to be read on their own time.

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Trustees also considered whether they wish to restrict the types of comment. President Bianca Tanis noted that one option is to ask people to stick to items on the agenda during the first comment period; the comment period at the end of the meeting could be opened to all district business.

Another draft will be circulated before any action on how members of the public comment is taken.

Leadership process questioned

How the president and vice president of the school board are selected involves something of a black box: members enter into executive session ahead of the first meeting of the school year and when they emerge, a vote is held to pick those two leaders. In New Paltz at least, it’s typical that only one person is nominated for each position. As the president is a position that requires a lot of extra hours to accomplish, the implication is that there’s some amount of discussion ahead of that vote to determine who might be willing. That was acknowledged during the July 21 meeting, when trustee Diana Armstead asked what the process really entails.

Armstead, who was vying for a leadership role this year, wanted to know why there was no board discussion. According to former president Glenn LaPolt, there is never such a discussion among all board members; president Bianca Tanis agreed that that wasn’t the process for this year. What happened instead was that LaPolt, who did not wish to continue in that role, asked around to see who might be willing to step up. Apparently, Armstead had a conversation with Tanis about serving as vice president, but Brian Cournoyer took the job without anyone else being nominated. The fact that Armstead was surprised by this suggests that even during the executive session, there was no discussion among all board members about who might be nominated for these two positions.

Tanis signaled that it may be appropriate to develop a formal process.

Diversity consultant favorites identified

School board members were encouraged to select Due East and Equity Literacy as the firms to provide advice and guidance when it comes to managing diversity and inclusion in the district. The sentiment was expressed both by members of the Racial Equity Committee and the superintendent of schools, Angela Urbina-Medina. Board members will be deciding on this contract at a future meeting.