School Board to Hold Listening Session
District legal reps say while technically legal, concern remains of listening sessions skirting public meeting law
By Brandi Makuski
Members of the Stevens Point School Board plan to hold a public listening session on Wednesday at the Portage Co. Public Library.
Listening sessions were first proposed in late 2014 by Board Member Alex Kochanowski, who himself has hosted such events since October, billing them as a “public gathering” or “listening session” to avoid clashing with the state’s public meeting laws.
The Board already does hear public input during its regular meetings on both agenda and non-agenda items. Kochanowski said he wants an additional opportunity for the public to discuss their concerns on specific topics, to include grade realignment and new district goals, with the Board in a more relaxed atmosphere.
But setting topics for a listening sessions poses potential legal problems for the Board because of issues relating to proper meeting notices and the ability to legally conduct district business outside the confines of a formally-recognized meeting. Board Members Angel Faxon and Meg Erler both said the district’s legal counsel warns the sessions, even without a set topic of discussion, are “fraught with peril”.
“We aren’t allowed to have a ‘discussion’ on this because that’s conducting Board business, and we can’t do that,” Board President Faxon said, adding for the meeting to fit the state’s definition of a public listening session, Board Members cannot schedule a topic of discussion or hand out materials on any district matter.
To do so, she said, would be considered participation in a discussion not formally recognized on a meeting agenda, which could create legal problems for the district.
“We generally need to just listen, but we can ask for clarification,” Faxon said. “It’s just so touchy, we have to be careful it doesn’t become a mini-Board meeting.”
“So we’re opening ourselves up for anyone from the public to come to this listening session and say whatever they want to say?” Kochanowski asked. “Why did we not make this an agenda?”
Superintendent Attila Weninger said based on his discussions with the district’s legal counsel, should a quorum- five or more Board Members- attend Wednesday’s listening session they could legally conduct a vote.
“So if you want to talk to people about grade realignment, the thing to do is to let the people bring it up,” Weninger said. “If you actively engage in discussion, if you pose an item (for discussion), you essentially began a discussion at the Board level without having posted it on the agenda. A listening session is wide open, where you on the Board get to listen, and you can ask clarifying questions, but you can’t interact with that because then you’re conducting Board business without the whole Board present.”
In November the Board had a lengthy discussion over possible meeting formats for the listening sessions but could not agree on any guidelines for the meetings.
Board Member Meg Erler suggested it would be easier to hold listening sessions as individual members to avoid the potential legal problems, pointing to Kochanowski’s listening sessions as well as those frequently held by State Senator Julie Lassa and Assemblywoman Katrina Shankland.
But Kochanowski said he wanted as many Board Members as possible in the room to hear the public input so “there was no speculation [about what was said]…there’s less likelihood of anything happening that isn’t witnessed by another individual.”
Along with Kochanowski, Board Members Meg Erler and Trish Baker said they plan to attend, with possible attendance by Faxon, Lisa Totten and Kim Shirek. The meeting begins at 7 PM and will be chaired by Board Secretary Amy Dailey.