The Kokomo Teachers Association voiced opposition to a Kokomo School Board policy it claimed made it too difficult for teachers to speak during board meetings, and then the school board made a change the association said only makes it harder.
During last week’s meeting of the Kokomo School Board, members passed a resolution altering its policies concerning public comment. That resolution changed a board policy that already set the body’s public comment procedures apart from most other area schools’ and most other major Howard County and Kokomo governmental bodies.
The previous policy only allowed public comment if individuals wishing to speak signed up just prior to the meeting, and then they could only speak about items on the agenda after they’ve been voted on.
The new policy altered when prospective speakers can sign up to partake in public comment, mandating that they must sign up the business day prior to the meeting. This, said KTA President Nicole Mundy, only makes it harder for teachers to speak during school board meetings.
However, Kokomo School Corporation Communications Director Dave Barnes contended the school board still permits public comments and that the new resolution highlights the board’s “principal responsibility to students, as well as its relationship to stakeholders concerning the process and procedures for gathering input about matters being considered.”
“Shame on them,” said Mundy. “They say they value community input and what’s happening in our schools, but they make it really hard for anyone to talk to them or get information from anyone but (Superintendent) Jeff Hauswald or an administrator at the district level.”
Mundy claimed the board’s change in policy was retaliation for her voicing opposition during a board meeting about two months ago, where she claimed she told elected board members “they were missing a piece of the picture” by not communicating with teachers prior to making decisions.
Barnes, however, indicated the change was related to a more recent board meeting, during which Mundy attempted to speak during the “personnel matters” portion of the agenda.
“Through this resolution, the board still permits public comments, which has been standard practice for many years. One primary component of the resolution approved by the board was the clarification of existing practices, one example of which is that comments concerning personnel matters are not, and have not been, permitted,” said Barnes.
Mundy said this wasn’t the first time the board had taken action after KTA leadership voiced concerns during a public meeting.
According to reporting by the Kokomo Herald, in 2014 former KTA President Cheryl Simmons voiced concerns mirroring Mundy’s during a school board meeting Then, Simmons said she was “requesting meaningful discussion and input on how to make the certified staff feel valued. Teachers do have a voice, but it has not been heard lately.”
In a meeting after Simmons spoke out, the Herald reported the former KTA president was “apparently stopped from speaking during the open comment portion of the board meeting.” The agenda item relating to public comment was changed for that meeting, according to previous reporting, from “items brought up by visitors” to “comments by visitors regarding meeting agenda items.”
Similarly, Mundy said she spoke about two months ago during the public comment portion of a school board meeting, claiming board members weren’t receiving enough information directly from teachers. Then, the next meeting, Mundy said she wasn’t allowed to speak to the board concerning changes to teachers’ retirement plans, despite personnel items being listed as an agenda item at the meeting. This, according to the school, was one reason for the policy change.
The new policy, Mundy said, made participation in board meetings even more difficult.
“To me, it’s a clear pattern that they don’t want to hear from us,” said Mundy.
With the new policy and meetings often taking place on Mondays, prospective participants must sign up to provide public comments on Fridays. At that time, according to Mundy, it is difficult to discern what agenda items may be pertinent to sign up to speak about due to either vague meeting agenda notices or not being able to adequately view the agendas.
However, the board’s resolution, which was unanimously approved, read “the Board of School Trustees welcomes public interest in our school district and recognizes and values public comment at regular Board meetings on decisions being deliberated and considered on school district matters.”
Furthermore, the resolution read, “the Board of School Trustees shall set aside a time for public comments related to agenda items scheduled for action and labeled as ‘Unfinished Business’ or ‘New Business.’ The agenda items shall be listed in advance on the District’s website and posted at the Administrative Service Center.”
Both items appear to be new when compared to the school’s existing policies.
Barnes indicated that KTA leadership has taken to utilizing the school board meeting’s public comments as a platform for communication when other routes were preferable.
“All Kokomo School Corporation patrons should first communicate with teachers and/or building administrators, followed by district personnel,” said Barnes. “During the last few years, the two patrons to address concerns to the Board during ‘public comments’ at a board meeting have been two of the last three presidents of the local teachers’ union. Fortunately for the teachers’ union, that entity has a legally-prescribed method for discussion, which is conducted monthly at each school building and at the district level.”
Indiana law does not necessitate public comments be allowed at public meetings, only that government meetings must be open to public attendance.