Months after I Am Jazz, a video about a young transgender person, was screened in Saline elementary schools, the debate has continued to rage in the community and at Saline Board of Education meetings. On Facebook, conservative and liberal groups have rallied their communities to appear to speak at the board meetings, and to cheer on those who do. At both meetings in May, the board spent considerable time listening to public commentary on issues with little relation to agenda items in front of the board.
The board is considering new regulations around the public participation at board meetings, believing new policy will bring more focus and do more to protect public speakers from potential backlash.
The majority of the board appears to support the recommended policy changes - but it’s also clear the board didn’t support the way it was brought to the table.
On Monday, the board’s policy committee met to discuss several potential policy changes, including changes to public participation at board meetings.
There are several potential policy changes:
- A large group planning to attend would be asked to contact the superintendent one day before the meeting to “assure seating” for the group. They would also be requested to select up to five representatives to speak on behalf of the board for a total of no more than 15 minutes.
- The public participation portion of the meeting will be limited to 30 minutes. The public participation portion occurs at the beginning of the meeting. Someone who still wishes to speak would still be permitted to address the board at the end of the agenda.
- Speakers are still required to register their intention to participate in the public portion part of the meeting upon arrival. That’s not new. A new policy says the form would require participants to include their name, date and group affiliation. The form would also include check boxes for Saline students or district residents.
- The board would no longer require people to announce their home address before public participation. Some in the community felt the previous policy could subject public speakers, especially students, to harassment or even violence.
- New policy language would also ask people to use common courtesy to refrain from personal attacks.
- Although not enumerated in the recommendation, the board also discussed policy language that would have students speak before adults in most cases.
The board took the unusual step holding a special meeting Tuesday at 6 p.m. to discuss these policy change. The plan was to potentially vote on the new policy at the regular 6:30 p.m. meeting.
But while the board did discuss the policy at its special meeting – the vote was postponed to a later date – with several trustees saying that rushing the policy was the wrong move for a district that has lost the trust of some of its citizens.
“A year ago, we could have had the policy meeting, made the change for the betterment of our students and not been criticized. Nobody probably would have paid attention,” said Trustee Tim Austin. “But fast forward to where we are right now. We have a different school district now. There are parents who feel like they’ve been marginalized. They lack the trust. At this point, we have to start building the trust. We have to move forward and it starts with us building trust in the community. We need to move this to the June 25 agenda. That’s the first step to building the trust.”
Austin was speaking of some of the more conservative parents who weren’t happy about the decision to screen the I Am Jazz videos in schools, and who weren’t satisfied by the way in which parents were notified of the subject matter.
Austin said he had no issue with the public speaking policy. Trustee Dennis Valenti appeared to agree with Austin.
“I support the policies that are proposed. I’ve not read, heard or seen anything that dissuades me of these changes. I, like Trustee Austin, am disturbed by how we’re going about it. It just does not build trust,” Valenti said. “But looking at the totality of everything, the changes here I don’t have any problem with whatsoever.”
Trustee Jennifer Steben also agreed with the call to move the vote to the June 25 agenda. She also said the community would be better served by more factual information. She said she read an article that was not factual. She also took umbrage with an Mlive article which stated that all board members had been contacted for comment.
“I’ve never been contacted by Mlive since I’ve been a trustee,” Steben said.
Board President Paul Hynek said he’s seen other districts move quickly to change policies. He noted the Traverse City school district’s policy committee recommended changes Friday that were passed by the board Monday.
As for the policy changes, Hynek said Saline would still be more liberal when granting time to public speakers than many neighboring districts.