If you have listened in or attended any public board meetings in the last year, you are no stranger to the calls for better communication and increased transparency. I have yet to come across a meeting where frustrations from community members around these two principles haven’t been a theme. So it’s no surprise that some candidates in this year’s election are making their commitments to communication and transparency the cornerstone of their campaign promises and are featuring them prominently on lawn signs throughout our neighborhood.
Open lines of communication are crucial to cultivating a strong and successful relationship between a school board, the administration, and the members of a community. The Board of Education Policy Handbook states, “The Board of Education strives to conduct district affairs by way of a continuing, open dialogue between the community and the schools.”
Despite this commitment, board members continue to receive criticism for not engaging in open dialogue, particularly during board meetings. While it may frustrate the community that the board does not participate in discussions with speakers, this can be explained by looking at the rules and guidelines provided by The New York State School Board Association, which state:
“Generally, it is not recommended that board members interact with speakers because board meetings are for conducting district business and are not the proper forum for answering questions. If the speaker’s comments are about an agenda item, the board can address those concerns or questions when the item is discussed. Otherwise, the board can request the superintendent or designee follow-up with the speaker to address their concerns. There are only three instances in which a response is recommended:
1. When the comments made are not factual. Occasionally, a participant will share information that is inaccurate. In these instances, it is appropriate for the board president to clarify the misinformation.
2. When the inquiry can be answered by existing policy. “Please refer to our [name of policy] for more information.”
3. When the topic warrants placement on a future agenda. “The board will add your request to the agenda of the next board meeting. In all cases, the board president should be the only member of the board interacting with participants during public comment. At the end of each participant’s comments, the board is encouraged to thank the speaker.
At the close of every public comment period, it is customary for the Superintendent or Assistant Superintendent to respond to comments and address questions. From time to time, the designated board member, in this case, President Tony Greco, has also fielded questions. Over the last year, there has for the most part been only one question and variation of that question, centering on mask policy, which has been answered ad nauseum. Based on the comments still shared today, the frustrations expressed by some in the community falls squarely on how the board dealt with and responded to community feedback about masks. But, mask policy was mandated by the State. The board never voted on masks, it was never an agenda item and therefore did not call for commentary. For the public, who are more used to verbal discourse and less decorum, this was clearly difficult.
The public comment period at the board meeting is not the only way the board fulfills its commitment to creating an open dialogue with the community. There are several other options for asking questions and sharing concerns, particularly if you are not comfortable speaking publicly, which many residents are not.
Direct email and phone communication with the superintendent and administration is readily available on the Wantagh UFSD website.
So let’s talk about transparency
While there is absolutely a responsibility of the board to keep community members in the know about the happenings of the school district, there is also a responsibility on the part of the community members to seek out and access the information that is being made available. But the reality is, parents are busy!
Whether we’re sitting in traffic on the Southern State or carpooling our kids to and from sports and various after-school activities, it’s hard enough getting through the day-to-day grind let alone adding a scavenger hunt across wantaghschools.org website to gather information on the proposed 2022-23 budget, or any other key issue for that matter. This inspired wantaghparents.com to curate a list of the most helpful resources for Wantagh Parents and community members who want to stay in the know.
If you can’t attend public board meetings, listen in! Meetings are recorded, and you can learn a lot about the concerns of community members and how they are being addressed. For example, you might learn that a group of parents take issue with the “No Place for Hate,” initiative. (I know, I was as confused as you are that anyone would take issue with a program that promotes kindness, tolerance and inclusivity but they do, and they made it very clear at recent board meetings). For a list of upcoming events, meeting agendas and minutes, check out the links below.
Looking for information about what is being proposed in the budget? There is a link directly from the Wantagh UFSD website to a dedicated page on budget transparency. Here you can also find links to all the presentations made at public budget forums, including this recent presentation from April 4th, which is packed with information about the new initiatives and programs that make up the 2022-23 school year’s proposed budget. This is a great page for all our budget hawks to bookmark! I might also suggest you check out our budget deep dive for a closer look and additional context.If you have time, also check out the Board of Education Goals. Understanding the goals of our board of education and its mission will provide a framework by which to hold our board accountable effectively. Are they reaching the goals they outlined in their commitments to the community? Wouldn’t asking this question serve our children and our community better than the singular focus that has dominated the conversation for the better part of the last two years?