Members of the St. Paul school board are open to more critical feedback — they just doesn't want it to hijack regular business. And they don't want it televised or broadcast online.
In what at first glance appears to be a setback for open government, the board voted 5-1 this week to stop televising and streaming the public-comments portion of its meetings. It will continue to have a public-comment period 35 minutes before its regular meetings begin, which is when the broadcast will start.
According to a Star Tribune story, board member Anne Carroll explained that the move is part of a broader strategy to give citizens a greater voice, because under a new policy online submissions will be documented in the same way as in-person comments.
A cynic might jump to the conclusion that the St. Paul board simply lost its appetite for taking heat from the public in a televised and streamed broadcast. Testimony by five disgruntled teachers in 2014 is cited as having ignited the Caucus for Change effort to unseat board incumbents. This year, there has been testimony from parents decrying cuts in school programs and parents frustrated with behavior problems at Ramsey Middle School.
As Joe Nathan, director of the St. Paul-based Center for School Change, said during the public-comment period last week, "Democracy is messy."
Board member Jean O'Connell told an editorial writer that the policy change has been discussed for more than a year. The board's intent, she said, is to make the public-comment period more meaningful without allowing it to overwhelm the board's regular agenda.
O'Connell said many districts in Minnesota have separate, off-the-agenda public-comment sessions. She added that some St. Paul residents have been uncomfortable addressing the board with the cameras rolling, while others have been known to grandstand on personal gripes. O'Connell said plans are in the works to record audio of the comment period. She also said the board would review the new policy after four months and decide whether it needs adjustment.
The board's willingness to engage the public should be one of many issues on the minds of St. Paul voters as they consider the nine candidates who have filed to run for four seats on the board. Only one incumbent — Keith Hardy — will be on the Nov. 3 ballot, meaning significant change for the board in 2016.
Whether the newly constituted board sticks with the new public-comments policy or decides to reverse last week's decision is certainly not the biggest issue it will face. But transparency is important in policymaking and community relations, and St. Paul residents will be best-served by a school board that's open to hearing both supportive and dissenting viewpoints on substantive issues in public education.