Our View: Public comments deserve a broader audience

Last week, Longfellow Elementary School first-grade teacher Ivy Manning stepped up to the podium to ask the Rochester School Board to reconsider a policy change regarding enrollment in the district's choice schools. Under the revamped district lottery system, teachers' children no longer have priority, meaning Manning's kindergarten-age daughter is not guaranteed a spot in the school where her mother teaches.

"It's bigger than just me and my family," she told the board members, noting the change affects teacher morale and could split their priorities between schools. "This change affects our entire district, actually."

While Manning's complaint could have an effect in schools throughout the district, only the people gathered in the standing-room only crowd of about 140 people had a chance to hear her request or the words of parents who echoed her concerns.

While the school district records its regular meetings, as well as special sessions and study sessions, the video cameras are dark during the public comment periods held before each regular meeting.

That's also why anyone looking for an audio and visual record of Century High School science teacher Chuck Handlon's request that the district re-examine its policy on science requirements for graduation won't find it on the district's website. The request was made in November during the school board's public comment period.


The board's public comment periods frequently pass without anyone taking advantage of the opportunity to address the school board. However, occasionally, a parent or teacher steps up and asks for the board's attention, typically asking for clarification or change regarding district policy.

And typically, as Manning noted, those requests could have an effect on the entire district.

That's why we feel it is time for the school board to consider its options regarding recording of these public comments.

We understand the school district isn't required to record any of its public meetings. Simply opening the doors to the public is all that is required under state law.

So, we applaud the Rochester School Board for turning on the cameras during regular meetings and making the video available on public access channels and through the Rochester Public Schools website. It provides a layer of transparency we would like to see more school districts in the region adopt.

Yet, with the ability to take the next step, it's hard to understand why the district hasn't made the move to record the public comments when individuals decide to address the school board. The equipment is already in place and being used, so the added camera time wouldn't be a financial burden on the district.

Concerns that some people would not want to be recorded also fall short. These are people who are attending a public meeting to voice their opinions — opinions they feel strongly enough about to face strangers on uncertain ground. Knowing their words are being recorded with the potential to carry their message farther would seem to be invited.

On the other side, we've heard speculation that recording public comments, which are open to anyone willing to address the board, could spur grandstanding by those seeking to address personal issues. The fear is such activity would waste time the board could use to discuss the topics on the night's agenda.


Since the board requests each speaker limit comments to a few minutes, an occasional grandstanding resident likely would be cut short before taking too much time. And if a few people who have issues they wish to raise are lured by the public forum, it could help the board members gain new insights into the people they've been elected to serve.

Ultimately, when it comes to public meetings, we see too much input as a good problem to have.

It's time to consider adding more transparency and giving those willing to speak and raise concerns a larger voice.

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