School Board Debates Time Allotment of Speakers, Schooled By One
Board President Angel Faxon with Board Member Chris Scott and Superintendent Attila Weninger prior to the School Board meeting on June 23. (City-Times photo)
“I also think that if we have one person come up and speak, we don’t listen to them. We need, unfortunately, 10 to 15 people to come voice their opinion or we’re not listening to them,” -Kim Shirek
By Brandi Makuski
With a hefty agenda and a vocal mind to complete it, the Stevens Point School Board on Monday was admittedly blindsided with a high number of residents who signed up to speak during the public comment period- 22 in all.
As most residents who address the Board come with prepared, written statements, Board Members spent several minutes discussing how best to accommodate all the speakers, who under district policy are given 3-5 minutes each. Board President Angel Faxon said after conferring with legal counsel, she felt a compromise of four minutes per speaker would be the most fair, and noted speakers wouldn’t be allowed to transfer their minutes to another speaker- something which has been allowed in the past despite no foundation for the practice within Board policy.
Faxon was about to recognize the first speaker on the list when Board Member Kim Shirek raised her hand to speak.
“If someone is thinking they can yield their time (to another), can we suggest they have to come to the podium with their speaker, since they’re not aware they can’t yield their time to someone else for tonight,” asked Shirek. “Basically, they’re at the podium speaking with them, since this is a new thing that we’re throwing on them. I understand the time (crunch), but I believe we need to hear these community members also.”
Faxon said that would be a “poor” decision to make, but now that a concern had been voiced it would ultimately have to be a decision made by the entire Board.
Chris Scott said members of the public have several methods to voice their opinions outside the Board meeting venue, and allowing a total of 88 minutes for public comment could force the Board to move items to its next agenda.
“This isn’t a community speaking engagement; it’s a board meeting where the public is invited to give their input,” Scott said. “But there’s a difference between five people and 100 people because we have work to do. Their input is very important, but the reason we make it 3-5 minutes is exactly that: the number of speakers who come to a meeting may require us to keep moving the work away, because they have other opportunities to address us.”
But three Members pushed against the idea of limiting speakers’ time. Alex Kochanowski, Lisa Totten and Kim Shirek all said it wasn’t fair to members of the public who prepared for five minutes.
“I understand this is a Board decision, and per our policy we decide how much time people get to speak. I think we should vote on it,” Totten said. “As an elected Board that represents the people, I want to hear what they have to say, even if it’s 100 people here. I believe they should have five minutes; that’s what we have been doing. If we have to stay here until one o’clock, so be it. But I was elected to represent them and I want to hear what they have to say. So I would like to make a motion that we allow our guests this evening to speak for five minutes.”
The motion was quickly seconded by Kim Shirek.
“I also think that if we have one person come up and speak, we don’t listen to them,” Shirek said. “We need, unfortunately, 10 to 15 people to come voice their opinion or we’re not listening to them.”
“I want to be clear on what you’re voting on- five minutes each, 22 people, that is almost 2 hours of public comments,” Faxon said. “I can tell you based on the agenda that we have, at 10:30 people can start saying, ‘I’m tired and I don’t want to make this decision’ and I’m going to say ‘that’s tough- we have a lot of work to do and we need to do it’.”
The Board then voted down Totten’s motion, with only Kochanowski and Shirek agreeing to the five- minute allotment. A second vote approved a 3- minute time allotment for each speaker, with Totten, Kochanowski and Shirek all voting against.
“If we’re going to continue to go back and forth like this, we need to establish tonight how much time we’re going to allow for each speaker an hour, two hours ahead of time,” Kochanowski said. “They need to know if they have five minutes or three minutes so they can prepare accordingly. We’re going to be cutting off so many people tonight, that’s not appropriate, it’s not right.”
Board Member Trish Baker pointed out such a time limit already exists within the Board’s own policy, which allows 3-5 minutes per speaker, depending on the number of speakers present.
The debate and two votes took about ten minutes, after which Faxon apologized to the public for the delay. Just as Faxon called the first speaker, Elbert Rackow, to the podium, Kochanowski spoke:
“Elbert, my apologies on behalf of the board if you needed five minutes,” he said.
The comment prompted a response from Chris Scott.
“Don’t apologize for the board, only apologize for yourself,” she said.
Faxon quickly quelled the conversation by telling the two they were “out of order”, then moved back to the speaker standing at the podium.
Elbert Rackow of Stevens Point is a past president of the Stevens Point Area Retired Teachers Association (SPARTA). Rackow read from a written statement.
“I, and I assume other members of the community, have been concerned about the long meetings our school board has had,” Rackow said. “Long meetings make it hard for the public to make itself heard at Board meetings. Many of us, including Board Members, have daytime jobs.”
Rackow went on to say Board minutes of the past several meetings show adjournments past midnight.
“It might be well for you to strive to end your meetings at a time that is welcoming to the public while conducting your business affectively,” he said.
Rackow’s entire speech lasted one minute, six seconds.
The Board adjourned about 1:30 AM.