Parents seek voice on Hamilton County Schools

Parents seek voice on Hamilton County Schools

October 9th, 2011 by Kevin Hardy in News

Mike Evatt, the school board chairman for Hamilton County Schools

Photo by Jenna Walker/Times Free Press.

POLL: Should there be a law mandating that school boards hear from the public at their meetings?

WHAT OTHERS DO


Atlanta: Community board meetings are held once a month and allow input from students, staff, parents and community members. Individuals must sign in to speak.

Bledsoe County: Individuals can comment on agenda items by signing up at a meeting. To add an agenda item, members of the public must submit a written request 10 days in advance.

Cleveland City: Individuals must make a written request to the schools director. The board determines whether to hear the appeal.

Knox County: During regular meetings, members of the public may speak on any education-related topic. Public comments at work sessions are restricted to agenda items. Individuals must call ahead or arrive five minutes before the meeting in order to speak.

Metro Nashville: The school board hears public comments at one of two monthly meetings. Speakers must make a request at least two days in advance. At least 20 copies of any handouts must be provided.

Rhea County: Individuals must make a written request 14 days prior to a meeting to be placed on the agenda. However, the board allows public comments on agenda items by signing in at meetings.

Shelby County: Community members may ask the superintendent or board chairman to petition the board. The chairman determines whether to grant the request.

Source: Various school district web sites

When trying to address a problem with Hamilton County school zoning several years ago, Jimi Crooks couldn't seem to get the ear of anyone important.

After trying unsuccessfully to bring the issue to school district officials, he tried going to the school board.

No luck there. His topic wasn't allowed onto the school board's agenda. And because board meetings don't have time set aside for public comments, Crooks felt silenced.

"The school board is a meeting that's open to the public," he said. "It's not a public meeting."

Crooks and another parent addressed the issue last week at school Superintendent Rick Smith's State of the Schools address to the Hamilton County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations. Crooks argued that the current policy should be changed to allow public participation, similar to meetings of the Chattanooga City Council and Hamilton County Commission.

School officials say board meetings are meant to address districtwide issues, policies and procedures and that parents' concerns are usually school- or student-specific and not appropriate for public meetings. But many school boards, including some of the largest in the region, carve out time to hear from the public.

Policies vary, but the boards of Metro Nashville Schools, Knox County Schools and Atlanta Public Schools all allow public participation in some manner. Still, policies of other local districts, including Cleveland City and Bradley County, only call for public participation if individuals are on the agenda.

Hamilton County Schools' policy allows individuals to petition the board, but only if they're on a meeting agenda. To get there, they must first submit a written request three calendar days in advance of a meeting. Those requests then must be approved by the superintendent and board chairman.

The county's policy says the board chairman, at his or her discretion, can allow individuals to speak who aren't on the agenda, but majority vote of board members present can overrule that decision.

When individuals don't make it onto an agenda, their concerns are still addressed by a board member or administrator, said board Chairman Mike Evatt. Meetings could get out of hand if everyone was allowed to "air out their dirty laundry," he said.

"I don't want it to become a free-for-all," he said. "It's not time to have just a gripe session."

Evatt said he recommends parents contact their individual board representative if they're unable to resolve a school problem.

"Our board is very open to listening to concerns," Evatt said. "But at the same time, we don't like negative publicity. We're trying to do positive things, change the atmosphere surrounding the board and do what's right for the system."

In Tennessee, there's no law mandating that school boards hear from the public at their meetings. But Frank Gibson, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said that doesn't mean they should make it difficult.

"Any elected body that restricts public participation to only election day, I would think would be asking for trouble," he said. "If the only way a parent or citizen gets to speak is with their vote, and they never get to be heard again after that, it doesn't sound very democratic."

Smith said Hamilton County's restrictions aren't meant to keep the public out. Rather, the current policy is aimed at keeping the board focused on broader issues.

"When you look at a school board meeting, I think it needs to be designed to talk about issues that are systemwide," he said.

Smith said most problems are better handled at the school level or by a department director at the central office.

"I think that most parents know that the best place to get an issue resolved is at the lowest level," he said.

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