Our Opinion: Hopefuls, incumbents can fix broken policy on our school board

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Calls for reform from three first-time candidates and wise words from a respected leader show there’s reason for optimism on the Wilson County Board of Education.

The Wilson Times published responses to our candidate surveys in the District 7 school board race on Monday and shared the three unopposed incumbents’ responses Tuesday. Each current and prospective board member provided thoughtful answers.

District 7 hopefuls Rhyan Breen, Stephanie Cyrus and Wayne Willingham all agree the school board should change its restrictive public comment policy and reconsider the elimination of valedictorian and salutatorian honors scheduled to take effect in 2020. Each candidate considered those issues and arrived at the same correct, constituent-focused conclusions.

Voters can be confident their choice will place an advocate for parents, students and teachers on the Board of Education. We needed a reform candidate, and District 7 has been blessed with three.

Among the incumbents who will be on the ballot with no opposition in November, District 5 representative Beverly Boyette impressed us with her candor and humility — the hallmarks of a true public servant. Though she voted for the requirement that people sign up three days in advance in order to address the school board, Boyette now acknowledges that decision was made a bit too hastily.

“I do think we should reconsider the change in the public comment policy,” Boyette wrote in her Times survey response. “We changed the policy after learning that our old policy was out of compliance and needed to be revised. In doing so, and by waiving a second reading, we did not discuss the proposed changes and give time for input from the public. I believe we should reconsider the policy and possibly extend opportunities for speakers to address the board.”

We applaud Boyette for her willingness to examine this issue and advocate for her constituents through her support for open, accessible government.

District 1 representative Debora Powell didn’t specify whether she wants to revise the rules, but she did write that she’s “always open to input from the public.” Since people who don’t register to speak three days in advance are denied the chance to provide input, the current policy is incompatible with Powell’s pledge of openness.

Christine Fitch, who represents District 3 and is the board’s chairwoman, seemed to endorse the speaker restrictions.

“The time between sign-up and the board meeting allows for staff to provide clarification for the speaker’s interest/concern and possibly have information available for the meeting,” she wrote.

As Monday’s public comment session showed, this theory hasn’t panned out. Two parents — including Breen — reported traffic tangles and danger to students in the New Hope Elementary drop-off line due to a 10-minute delay in the time children are allowed inside the school. Fitch directed Superintendent Lane Mills to follow up with both speakers at a later date.

Board members didn’t discuss the comments or offer any response whatsoever — no one even expressed concern or sympathy to a mother whose child was nearly struck by a car in the motor vehicle melee at New Hope. The prep time hasn’t improved communication one iota.

Even if the three-day deadline did enable the board to arrive response-ready, the point of public comment is for citizens to address their elected officials, not for officials to recite prepared statements. Our school board policy has it backward. This time is reserved for the people to speak. Representatives’ job is to listen.

Speaker restrictions make comment sessions smoother for board members and administrators because they reduce the likelihood of surprises. The advance registration rule elevates an insular institutional preference above the need of parents, teachers, students and community members to address their representatives without jumping through hoops and tripping over red tape.

The good news is that our next District 7 member — whoever he or she may be — understands that. Beverly Boyette in District 5 understands that. And Debora Powell in District 1 seems to understand as well.

With a renewed commitment to the public it serves, we believe our school board can make Wilson County proud. We saw some definite glimmers of hope this week.

Will the board wait until a constituent-focused reform candidate is elected in November to address its problematic public comment policy, or will its current members do the right thing and restore full access to the people’s podium during their Oct. 15 meeting?