Earlier this month, a three-minute time limit was established for public comments at school board meetings, but Scarsdale’s Board of Education will consider responding to speakers in real time.
The board of education’s committee on community engagement agreed on Nov. 12 to introduce two new short-term communicative avenues for residents to vocalize opinions: 1) have board members or administrators respond to residents’ statements after the public comment periods at board meetings, and 2) introduce a Google form for community members to submit topics of interest or concerns prior to a board meeting.
The community engagement committee has met three times since it was established in 2019. The first two interactive listening sessions, which took place prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, were held in person at the high school with a variety of stakeholders giving feedback on the board’s communications successes and failures. The sessions gave residents a chance to suggest options that might improve community interaction and communication with the school board.
The committee organized suggestions in three areas: board community engagement opportunities, district community engagement opportunities and community-wide engagement opportunities.
The ideas will be further siphoned by the committee into three categories: opportunities unanimously recommended to the board, opportunities considered by the committee but not recommended to the board, and opportunities the committee was split in determining whether to recommend or not. The committee plans to meet again in December.
Given the COVID-19 pandemic, which has put a strain on school districts with hybrid educational models and limited in-person interactions, the committee wanted to submit short-term recommendations to the board of education.
“A lot of the other ideas we’ve discussed are things that we would do in person or might be [part of] a longer-term roll out,” said board member Ron Schulhof who also serves on the committee.
Some short-term recommendations from the committee’s draft report are: focus groups, embedding community dialogue within every issue, simplifying language, adding board business and board-related links on the school district website and including a feedback form for residents to use when communicating with the board.
To embed community dialogue into every issue, Schulhof recommended the board offer follow-up responses after each public comment session at board meetings (currently follow-up only takes place after the second public comment section near the end of the meeting).
According to Schulhof, the purpose of that recommendation is to respond to residents right away, while also giving community members who want to respond to the board and district’s answers a chance to do so during the second public comment period.
Adding a follow-up period after the first public comment session wouldn’t guarantee speakers a response though, as the district and board may need time to gather information.
“Certainly, there might be a situation where cabinet would say, ‘We’ll have to get back to that’ or ‘This is a response we need to put a little bit more time into,’” said school board president Pam Fuehrer. “Cabinet could also easily say ‘These are things that we’ll be talking about in the upcoming agenda item.’ So there isn’t the need that they have to be repetitive in that follow-up if it was something they were intending to cover during the agenda.”
Board member Karen Ceske recommended the board add an online form on the board of education’s website so community members could submit topics of interest or concerns prior to a meeting. The form would not be anonymous.
The idea was borrowed from the Rye City School District, which allows community members to submit a topic for the board of education to consider prior to a meeting.
Board member Carl Finger said he didn’t see a problem with either of the suggestions presented by the committee, but he questioned whether an online form would be used frequently enough to justify its existence since a general board email address already exists. Ceske said the form would be used to collect one-off concerns and to see if there were a trend or common concerns that could be addressed at a meeting.
“[It’s] a little less [formal], but again another way to communicate with us if you don’t want to speak at public comment and you don’t want to write a formal email,” said Ceske.
Board member Amber Yusuf also questioned the implementation of the form, sharing her concerns that if someone were to ask a question or introduce a topic for discussion through the form and didn’t receive an acknowledgement from the board at the next meeting then they might wonder why they never received a response.
“With the emails, we do respond to everything we receive,” said Yusuf.
Fuehrer said the form would be a “void” and she said she was concerned that because there wouldn’t be individual responses to community members who post items on the form and not everything they submit would be included in the upcoming board agenda, then residents question the impact of using the form.
The next school board meeting agenda will include time for follow-up to public comment, and Fuehrer said she planned to ask the Rye district about how its Google form was implemented and used.
Suzie Hahn, the portfolio chair of the League of Women Voters of Scarsdale, read a statement on behalf of the league during public comment at the board meeting Nov. 16, which commended the work of the committee on community engagement and the board’s recent decision to expand public comment to Zoom during in-person meetings.
“In light of heightened community interest in the complicated issues currently before the board of education, the league board encourages the board of education to create more engagement opportunities for all stakeholders and to promote a dialogue between the community and the board of education,” she said. “Additional engagement opportunities are especially important given the board of education’s recently passed resolution to limit public comment to three minutes per speaker per comment session, and to limit the overall time of the first public comment session. The league board recommends that the board of education solicit early interest in district issues, actively seek input from all residents to identify the range of community sentiment, and engage in clear and timely communication methods.”