2017-10-04 / Featured / Front Page

In the name of efficiency, is the School Board becoming less transparent?


PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY LARISSA TYLERPHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY LARISSA TYLERFor the better part of the last 15 years, far longer than the superintendent and five School Board members have held their current posts, Brenda Stewart has stood at a dais in the front of the county’s Public Meeting Room and delivered pointed, public critiques of the local school administration.

Like a prosecutor preparing for a closing argument, Stewart takes time to craft her message prior to addressing the School Board. The 73-year-old Matoaca native girds herself with data gleaned from the school system’s files via the Freedom of Information Act. There are specific points she wants to convey. She knows she must precisely use the three minutes allotted to any citizen who signs up to speak during the public comment period of the board’s monthly business meeting.

During a June 13 meeting, Stewart scolds the School Board for what she sees as an erroneous interpretation of school system policy, which will allow a highly paid central office executive to collect more than $300,000 in benefits from its massively underfunded supplemental retirement program. Tick … tick … tick … In the same speech, Stewart also advocates for custodians who lost their jobs when the School Board decided to hire a private contractor to clean all Chesterfield school buildings. She claims the school system allowed the company to avoid providing a contractually required salary increase to outsourced custodians.

Chesterfield residents Rodney Martin and Brenda Stewart were among those who asked the School Board not to change its public comment policy last month. 
ASH DANIEL Chesterfield residents Rodney Martin and Brenda Stewart were among those who asked the School Board not to change its public comment policy last month. ASH DANIEL Exactly three minutes after she begins speaking, School Board Chairman Javaid Siddiqi interrupts Stewart and informs her that her time has expired.

“Excuse me, I would like to finish please,” Stewart says, noting that she needs just another 15 seconds to finish her speech.

While the board often gives some leeway to citizens who speak past the three-minute time limit, Siddiqi doesn’t allow Stewart to continue. “Thank you, Brenda,” he replies, cutting her off.

Stewart attempts to press on. “Shame on all of you,” she says, before Siddiqi interrupts her again: “Brenda, I’ll ask you kindly...”

“You let somebody else stand up here and talk and talk,” Stewart adds, growing frustrated. Siddiqi has none of it.

“This is the second time you have displayed decorum that is not becoming of this board,” he says.

At this point, a county sheriff’s deputy leaves his usual post near the front door of the Public Meeting Room and walks over to stand just behind Stewart.

“Fine, arrest me,” she snaps, then leaves the dais accompanied by the deputy.

Stewart was not detained, but the School Board’s critics say the interaction is part of a troubling pattern: While Siddiqi claims the board is simply working to make meetings more efficient, others see elected officials as stifling public comment.

After the mid-June meeting, Stewart and others suggested Siddiqi summoned the deputy to intimidate citizens who might have something negative to say about the School Board in the future.

Sheriff Karl Leonard told the Observer last week that his deputies aren’t given “non-verbal cues” by the board chair and cannot be deployed to stifle citizens’ right to freedom of speech in a public venue.

“Our role is to provide a safe and secure environment,” he said. “It’s up to the chair to tell a citizen to stop talking. It’s only after somebody is told to step away from the podium that we can intervene. At that point, you’re getting close to trespassing.”

Despite Leonard’s assurance, some county residents regard the June incident as emblematic of a School Board that has been embarrassed by multiple high-profile administrative failures and is attempting to put a lid on public criticism. As the most recent example, they cite the board’s vote last month to limit public comment at its business meetings.

Previously, school staff would introduce an agenda item requesting action by the School Board, then citizens would have the opportunity to speak about that proposed action for a maximum of three minutes apiece prior to the board’s vote on that item. The sequence was repeated for each “action item” on the agenda.

Now citizens who wish to comment on action items on that night’s agenda must do so during a single public comment period prior to introduction of the proposed actions. Toward the end of the meeting, there’s an additional public comment period for non-agenda items, where citizens are allowed to speak for three minutes.

“We have two [former] educators up there who think it’s appropriate for citizens to ask questions before they hear the story,” Midlothian resident Rodney Martin said last week, noting that Siddiqi and fellow School Board member Dianne Smith are former teachers. “Forget government policy. I hope they didn’t teach their classes that way.”

Stewart also questioned how the School Board can expect citizens to comment meaningfully on multiple action items in just three minutes – particularly since the board changed its meeting schedule this year and consolidated two monthly business meetings into one.

That means there now typically are many more action items on the agenda than there used to be. The School Board’s April 19 meeting agenda contained eight action items.

Under the board’s former meeting rules, citizens conceivably could have spoken for three minutes on each of the eight items, for a total of 24 minutes.

Under the new rules, citizens at the same meeting would have had 22.5 seconds to comment on each of the eight action items.

“Action items are the vehicle for spending the public’s money,” Stewart said during a public comment period at the board’s meeting last month.

Midlothian resident Ron Hayes criticized the board’s decision to hold only one business meeting per month, saying that change was designed to limit opportunities for citizens to address their elected representatives. The board also conducts a monthly work session, but takes no votes at that meeting and doesn’t allow public comment.

“It’s fine for people to get up there and give them accolades, but they don’t want to hear any criticism,” Hayes said. “They want to shoot the messenger and shut us down.”

The School Board is not unanimously aligned behind the new public comment format. Carrie Coyner, who represents the Bermuda District on the board, cast the lone dissenting vote Sept. 12, saying her position hadn’t changed since Siddiqi first proposed changing the way the board accepts public comments in April.

“As elected officials, our duty is not only to listen, but to look into issues when they are brought to our attention,” Coyner said last week. “I liked having people talk about one or two things at a time. That way I could focus more on that particular topic.”

Coyner also was the lone School Board member to vote against moving the board’s monthly work sessions from the Public Meeting Room to a conference room in the Career and Technical Center on Hull Street Road – another change that has drawn criticism from citizen watchdogs for limiting public engagement.

Coyner pointed out that all board meetings previously were held in the Public Meeting Room on state Route 10, which is part of the county government complex, because it is centrally located to all Chesterfield residents. There is also much more rush-hour traffic on Hull Street Road than Route 10, making it more difficult for interested citizens to attend late-afternoon work sessions.

Responding via email on behalf of the School Board, Siddiqi defended moving work sessions to CTC @ Hull, which he said is “more centrally located based on where the county’s population lives.” He also said the School Board is considering moving work sessions back to the county government complex.

He also cited several “enhancements” the board has made to “increase information-sharing opportunities and public engagement throughout the entire community.”

“This board has been focused on taking public comment/engagement opportunities to the community instead of waiting for the community to come to us. Why? Because residents do not come to board meetings in large numbers; however, they do come to meetings closer to them,” Siddiqi wrote.

Siddiqi noted that School Board members have hosted meetings to solicit community input on Blueprint Chesterfield, an online survey county and school leaders created to gauge citizens’ spending priorities, as well as school construction projects approved in a 2013 bond referendum and a plan to change start times system-wide for the 2018-19 school year.

The school system has launched an open government portal on its website, including an online checkbook that allows citizens to track its payments to vendors on a monthly basis. It also disseminates information and receives citizen comments via a social media platform Siddiqi called “one of the largest of any school division in the country.”

“I’m all about transparency,” Siddiqi said in April when he proposed changing the board’s public comment policy. “I think we should be available and accessible. I don’t think that has to come with a comment for every action item.”

Siddiqi acknowledged he was prompted to introduce such changes for his fellow board members’ consideration by an incident that occurred at their April 19 meeting.

County Administrator Joe Casey had proposed a series of structural changes to the school system’s supplemental retirement plan, which had a $99 million unfunded liability and was in danger of becoming insolvent. The School Board was expected to vote on Casey’s proposal. Instead, when that item came up on the agenda, Siddiqi announced that the board had decided not to take action on it.

He attempted to move to the next agenda item, but Stewart and Martin shouted at him from their seats in the audience that they had signed up in advance to comment about the SRP item. They argued that, because Siddiqi had not removed it from the agenda prior to the meeting, they still had the right to speak to it.

Siddiqi gave Stewart and Martin three minutes apiece to talk about the SRP. The following week, he broached the subject of changing the public comment rules at the board’s work session.

“Some of the behaviors that were displayed were not representative of our communities,” Siddiqi said. “I know how many emails I get from folks in the community and I know you [my fellow board members] get just as many, if not more. I know how often you respond to those emails. We take this work very seriously.

“I don’t want to neutralize or cut folks out, but I also want to make sure everybody’s time is valued. I don’t know that we’re getting a lot of insight that is adding value to our decision-making at the end of the day.”

Following Siddiqi’s proposal to consolidate public comments, school staff created a survey and distributed it to the 133 school systems that are members of the Virginia Association of School Superintendents. Roughly 70 Virginia school systems responded, answering questions about the length of their public comment sections and whether they allow public comment on individual action items. To the latter, 74.6 percent of school systems responded “no.”

Martin called the survey “a joke” and “a sham,” arguing that most of the school systems that responded are far too small to be a valid comparison for Chesterfield.

“They did something to justify shutting people down,” he added.

The Observer contacted school officials in neighboring Henrico and Hanover counties, as well as the city of Richmond, to see how their school boards handle public comments at meetings.

Both Hanover and Richmond limit citizens to speaking during the public comment period. Neither allow citizens to comment on individual action items. Henrico didn’t respond.

Ben Kiser, executive director of the VASS, said school boards should try to find a balance with their public comment periods that allows for citizen input, but also makes efficient use of time at meetings. He also pointed out that by the time a board is ready to take action on an agenda item, the public typically has already had other chances to comment about it.

While the changes approved last month mean that citizens have fewer opportunities to comment at School Board meetings, experts and citizen advocacy groups say that the board is well within its rights.

“Virginia law doesn’t require a public comment period at all, so all of these places that have public comment periods are doing it because it’s the right thing to do,” said Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.

Though Rhyne said her organization doesn’t have a “best practices” procedure for public comment, “our general opinion [is] that citizens should be included in the crafting of policies about meeting times and public comment periods.”

Rhyne knows of many localities where it’s normal for citizens to have a single, three-minute period for public comment, but acknowledged that citizens who have become accustomed to commenting frequently at meetings can be upset by sudden changes to the structure of board meetings.

“That change is going to be very jarring to a public that’s used to it,” she said. “[Changes] certainly can give the impression of closing ranks and shutting out the public.”

According to John McGlennon, a professor of politics at the College of William and Mary and a current member of the James City County Board of Supervisors, many local elected boards have faced increased pressure from outspoken citizens in recent years.

“The impact of that has sometimes been that the length of meetings are extended significantly, and boards get frustrated and try to address that,” he said.

Bill Farrar, director of strategic communication with the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, said that while it is legal, his organization disagrees with limiting opportunities for public comment.

“Generally, from a policy perspective, we advocate for more opportunities for the public to have input than less,” he said. “Reducing those is not something that we would be in favor of. [It’s] not a great idea, and I think that [the School Board] would rightfully be hearing from people about that.” ¦

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