Following public outcry when comments submitted for a previous meeting went unheard, the Flagstaff Unified School District Governing Board voted Tuesday night to update its policy and read public comments aloud during virtual meetings.
When FUSD moved its board meetings online in March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, meeting agendas notified the public their comments must be submitted digitally at least two hours prior to the bimonthly Tuesday meetings. The policy, alongside other procedures for the virtual meetings, was repeated by Board President Anne Dunno at the beginning of each meeting.
The latest board discussion on public participation was held after comments submitted for the June 9 meeting — specifically regarding Superintendent Michael Penca’s evaluation and performance pay — were not read. At the time, Dunno noted, the comments were shared with the board, but held onto the district’s existing public comment policy that states, “General criticisms of school operations or programs will be heard, but complaints against specific District staff are not appropriate for a public meeting.” The board spent over an hour in executive session, which is not open to the public, for legal advice on the matter.
Following Tuesday’s discussion, however, school district staff will now read letters submitted by the public aloud to the board, much like the practice used by the City of Flagstaff for its virtual meetings. The city’s policy has since changed after staff read nearly seven hours of submitted public comments on police protests and funding last week.
The school board made the motion after about 25 minutes of private consultation with the district’s attorney and additional discussion among board members.
Members Kara Kelty and Carole Gilmore, in particular, were adamant that public comments be read aloud during the meetings.
“We serve because the public elected us and we need to be accountable for our decisions, and we need to hear the input from the public that they want to give us,” Kelty said. “And sometimes it might be things we don’t want to hear, but I truly believe our decisions are better in the long run because we listen to the public.”
Kelty was concerned that in archived meeting minutes, it would appear as though no one had submitted comments. She also noted that members of the public can always email the board, so having the community members submit public comments that would only be seen by the board seemed unnecessary.
Gilmore, referencing a webinar she attended featuring Chris Thomas, Director of Legal and Policy Services to the Arizona School Boards Association, said if public comment is going to be allowed, it includes the negative comments.
“Yes, there will at times be personal attacks, but you can discourage them but you can never prevent them. That is the law,” she said, quoting Thomas.
Gilmore noted that the board does not receive very many comments overall and those that it does have included good information. She also argued that board meetings should be the place for public comments.
“I only got about 15 minutes to read [the comments] since I had another appointment before the board meeting,” Gilmore said Tuesday. “That is not the way it should be handled. I really feel that the people who have taken the time to write the emails have some really, really good thoughts, and we should be giving them to all of the community to think about and discuss.”
In response, Penca explained he had worked with the board's president and the district attorney to establish appropriate procedures for the virtual meetings, which the district had not offered prior to the pandemic.
“We’ve really opened up public access, at least, to be able to view and be informed of the decisions, and so never was there any intention to try to restrict that,” Penca said. “It’s really just been trying to navigate procedures as we’re operating in a very different world.”
Two letters submitted for the June 9 meeting were from employees who retired early from their FUSD positions due to concerns with administration.
Jillian Worssam, an eighth-grade science teacher and former Coconino County Teacher of the Year, submitted a letter of “resignation/retirement” to the board detailing concerns about how a program she developed over the course of her 15 years with the district was recently handled.
“It was really important for me to not just resign but to let the board know and the let the community know,” Worssam told the Arizona Daily Sun. “This is what I have worked to do for the students and the children and the community of Flagstaff, and it saddens me that at least for four or five more grades of students, I can’t continue to do that.”
She said she was surprised the board, after returning from executive session for legal counsel, did not explain to the audience why the comments were not read.
“I do believe that this was handled poorly, and as the largest school district within this community there needs to be some checks and balances,” Worssam said.
Rosemary Groves, another longtime FUSD teacher, similarly submitted a letter announcing her reasons for retiring from the district early.
“I need to speak to you of my experiences as I end my career because I have seen that the board is not always given honest information about everything that goes on in our schools,” she wrote in her letter that detailed incidents of employee harassment within her school.
In a phone conversation after the June 9 meeting, Groves said she found the board’s handling of comments disconcerting.
“What if I was at the board meeting in person? I would have gotten up there in the public comments section and read the short version of my letter,” Groves said. “That was my main thing. I wanted it in the record of what was going on.”
Parents, too, submitted letters of concern that were not read.
“I would have never made the comments if I had known that they were just going to sit on somebody’s desk,” said Andrea MacIntosh when reflecting on the June 9 meeting and her submitted comments about discrimination toward special education students.
An additional letter submitted by MacIntosh was one of two read Tuesday on the subject of public participation, following the change in public participation policy.
Additional public comments submitted this week centered on the district’s plans for the fall. The board did not approve the initial plan — saying it lacked important details on subjects including employee safety and social and emotional support for students and staff — and will hold a special meeting Wednesday to further discuss the plan.
Kaitlin Olson can be reached at the office at email@example.com or by phone at (928) 556-2253.
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