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Public comment debated at SK School Committee meeting

October 12, 2012

SOUTH KINGSTOWN—At the bi-monthly meeting Tuesday evening, the South Kingstown School Committee discussed ways to address the needs of public members who bring issues forward that require further conversation. In light of recent verbal altercations during both school committee and South Kingstown Town Council meetings between members of the public and the respective groups, more innovative approaches have been contemplated to bring citizens into the school committee’s decision-making.
Superintendent of Schools Kristen Stringfellow provided her report from the Professional Development and Communications sub-committee, the group responsible for discussing and generating ideas about committee meeting procedures.

“At regular business meetings, the current community comments protocol provides the opportunity to give comment to agenda items,” Stringfellow. “On occasion, there are important issues that warrant the allocation of an entire meeting to engage community members in a meaningful manner with the school committee.”
“We believe that a structured opportunity for interaction and conversation will offer an equitable meeting format for all community members to be heard,” she added. “The school committee will have the opportunity to hear the community perspective before creating policy or programs, while other topics will be unveiled as a reaction to a brewing issue or concern.”
School committee member Richard Angeli, Jr. expressed concerns for responding to public criticisms and issues by having a separate meeting, although he did state that the idea itself is worthwhile to look at. School committee Chair Maureen Cotter also suggested that the sub-committee come back with more specific criteria for calling a separate meeting.
“One question I have is what is the deciding factor about what drives a community meeting and what doesn’t,” said Angeli. “Whose issue is more important and, because our community is made up of various communities, how are you going to manage that element to it?”
“I think you have to be careful in terms of how you implement something like this,” he added. “There could be 40 people standing at the microphone, and this policy will say let’s make a separate meeting to talk, but that is a very small percentage of our stakeholders.”
Both Stringfellow and sub-committee member Elizabeth Morris explained further the reasoning behind having separate meetings, as well as making clear that developing protocol at this particular moment is at an unfinished state.
“This is something that we have been working on since the communications sub-committee was reorganized a while back,” said school committee member Elizabeth Morris. “With some of these issues that bubble up to the surface and need further discussion, as we move forward, we will get a better feel when to have one of these meetings.”
“Probably the main reason we haven’t done this yet, and the question in my mind is, what is the trigger?” she added. “But, it is better than not having anything.”
“It is far better to have separate meeting on a topic of importance than to try and do it in the midst of a regular business meeting,” said Stringfellow. “I don’t think that happens very often, but when it does, this is a better way to approach it.”
Committee member Keith Vorhaben closed by reflecting Morris’ and Stringfellow’s comments that although the community comments protocol is an unfinished product, it is useful to begin the discussion.
“I think there are certain things that can be built, and certain things that need to grow,” said Vorhaben. “We need to demonstrate some trust with the community. We may stumble, but I think it is worth allowing this to grow and tweaking it.”
“I think stumbling on the details prevents you from moving forward, and I am willing to take the risk and trust the people out there,” he added.

Southern Rhode Island Newspapers
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