Tell us what you think (but not really)

Karen Gray

Extending an olive branch to members of the public who attend board meetings, the Clark County School Board is at the same time admonishing them that, "This isn't an opportunity to go haywire."

How far will this mixed message go in improving relations? Only the future will tell.

Recently, the school board announced its plan to improve and expand communication between the board and the public. Beginning March 26, 2009, the school board will implement a two-week pilot program that will provide line-by-line public hearings on agenda items, allowing citizens to comment as each agenda item is discussed by the board.

Regular attendees at the district meetings are welcoming the new approach. Currently, interested individuals only have the opportunity to speak during two separate periods. Those wishing to speak on agenda items are usually afforded three to five minutes at the beginning of the business portion of the meeting. Those wishing to speak on issues not on the agenda are afforded two minutes at the end of the meeting. Often such speakers must sit through three or more hours of board discussions before being heard.

With the changes, the board says it hopes to achieve better communication and to address public concerns more effectively and efficiently. Trustee Deanna Wright noted that, under the current process, the public is "shooting in the dark," not knowing what the board is thinking, and "trying to hit 45 targets."

While the board rightfully extended an olive branch with one hand, it could not help shaking a scolding finger with the other.

Audience members sat in bewilderment, like school children before scolding teachers, as board members prefaced their approval votes with admonishments and warnings.

Presuming that the public would abuse this new hearing process, board members speculated that some "educated and creative" audience members may take advantage of the new arrangement. Taking a preemptive strike, trustees put the public on notice that "this isn't an opportunity to go haywire." Citizens were warned to participate reasonably and not take advantage or tie up meetings. Otherwise, said trustees, the board would revert back to its old ways.

Trustees also cautioned that speaking on too many items could result in the restriction of an individual's time. If a speaker signed up for too many items, said Trustee Wright, the board should bundle his or her speaking time or restrict the speaker to one minute per item.

The dominant impression trustees left is that they are wary of the public—their own constituents—and conflicted, at some level, about affording opportunities for citizens to publicly share unapproved ideas, proposals and opinions.

However, if good communication is to be achieved, then the public must feel at liberty to speak freely and openly. For that to happen, the board must first accept that public hearings are the forum for the public to share all ideas and opinions—whether it's one or one hundred—with their elected representatives. That process offers the opportunity for officials to weigh the good, the bad and, sometimes, even the ugly.

Perhaps, for an alternative example of good communication, trustees could cast their eyes toward the Henderson City Council. Unlike the Clark County school board, council members often engage in conversation with speakers. Sometimes, they even have opposing opinions. But always, the council tells speakers they should leave the podium feeling they have fully expressed themselves.

The success of the school board's new hearing format will be determined not by the format itself, but rather by the board's ability to examine its own mindset. The adversarial environment that concerns board members—implicitly acknowledged in their admonishments to the public—naturally arises out of the board's own preconceptions.

Chief among these is the board's long-standing and unquestioning support for the district's basic model for public education: top-down, centralized, command and control. That is an inherently adversarial and implicitly repressive approach. And for it the board bears responsibility.

Karen Gray is an education researcher at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.