The St. Paul school board voted Tuesday night to stop televising and streaming the public-comments portion of its meetings, a move that critics say strikes a blow against open government.
The action puts St. Paul on equal footing with the Minneapolis Public Schools, which also refrains from airing what its citizens say during appearances before its school board. But it also removes from public view what often have been remarks critical of the district, the board and administrative leaders.
In fact, a May 2014 appearance before the St. Paul school board by five district teachers pushing for greater expectations of students and consequences for those who misbehave is credited with sparking a Caucus for Change movement dedicated to unseating board incumbents.
The change, which will go into effect in September, still allows for a public-comment period at 5:30 p.m., but it will be separate from the board meeting, which will start at 6:05 p.m. with the cameras rolling.
Board Member Anne Carroll argued that the change is part of a series of moves related to the collection of public comments that should give citizens a greater voice. She cited a new policy of taking online submissions that will be documented in the same way as in-person comments.
Board Member John Brodrick, who opposed the move in a 5-1 vote, said that having people speak to the board but not to the public via broadcast "betrayed the meaning of public comment."
Al Oertwig, a former board member, said the district has been broadcasting public statements to the board for more than 20 years. Currently, the comment period begins at 5:30 p.m., and when finished, gives way to an agenda item recognizing the "good work provided by outstanding district employees."
In recent months, testimony has included efforts by parents to rescue school programs from cuts. In November, a group of Ramsey Middle School parents who were frustrated by a delayed response to unruly behavior spoke during the public-comment period — some angered by what they claimed was a last-minute move by the district to dissuade them from appearing through delivery of a school action plan that day.
During the public-comment period Tuesday, three people spoke against the move to halt the broadcasts, with Joe Nathan, director of the St. Paul-based Center for School Change, saying viewers deserved to hear what the public was thinking and saying, even if it was not flattering to the district.
"Democracy is messy," he said.