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Comment versus grandstanding

At its meeting Monday, the Fort Wayne Community Schools board revised its board policies to restrict the time allowed for individual public comment from five minutes to three minutes.

That irritated our editorial board counterparts at the News-Sentinel, who apparently believe the school board had been limiting speakers to five minutes. It has not. In fact, the board has at times allowed members of the public to speak for 10, even 15 minutes at a stretch before they are encouraged to wrap it up.

Likewise, the board did not just move the comment period to the end of the meeting, after adjournment. The comment period has always been at the end of the meeting, after adjournment. The sessions are public meetings, as distinguished from public hearings.

That the school board, like other school boards, even allows public comment outside of public hearings is not the case with all publicly elected bodies. I've never seen, for example, the Indiana Senate president pro tem or House Speaker adjourn a day's session and open up the mike to the public.

The FWCS board revised its policy May 24 after members realized they weren't clear on what the rules stated. It became an issue because a plaintiff in the lawsuit seeking to block the closing of Elmhurst High School used the comment period last month to cross-examine administrators and board members on questions for which the answers were not readily available. The intent, clearly, was to portray them as unresponsive and uninformed.

It's wrong to suggest that the FWCS board revised its policy to turn off complaints from Elmhurst parents. In addition to the lawsuit plaintiff, two other Elmhurst area residents spoke at the meeting, primarily to offer suggestions. The board listened patiently.

The Elmhurst closing has created a media moment for a few people and the TV news cameras and public access TV time seem too much to resist for some.

As for the News-Sentinel editorial argument that the time for public comment is before action is taken, the FWCS board held a lengthy and emotional meeting at Elmhurst High School and another board meeting, where the public was given ample opportunity to speak, in some cases with repeated trips to the microphone. Those opportunities came before the vote.

The FWCS board is not eliminating public comment from its meeting format. And I, as well as my paper, would jump all over the board if it tried.

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at kfrancisco@jg.net.

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