Political Notebook

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Public comment perplexes board

The question seemed simple: Should Hoosiers be able to speak on any education topic they choose during the public comment period at State Board of Education meetings?

But the Board on Wednesday spent a puzzling 20 minutes discussing the issue. At one point it seemed everyone supported more public comment but no one actually wanted to vote on it.

For years the public comment policy was open to all subjects. Sometimes citizens would come up and discuss inappropriate literature in schools or groups would assail daylight saving time as dangerous for kids.

But the policy was changed during a recent revamp of board operating procedures to allow comment only on items on that day’s agenda.

The problem is sometimes the board adds an item during the meeting, meaning the public wouldn’t have notice to talk on that topic. And what if a citizen wants to criticize the performance of the board itself? It’s not likely that would ever be an agenda item.

In March, board member Andrea Neal proposed reinstating the open general comments. Members expressed concern and the issue was assigned to an ad hoc committee. That committee didn’t meet, however, until the morning of the Wednesday meeting.

Only Neal and Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz attended. A draft was circulated on members’ desks minutes before the meeting started and the topic was brought for a vote.

Board member Gordon Hendry strongly questioned the process of waiting until the last minute, and said the discussion should include more ways to include the public in the education process. He was a member of the ad hoc committee but didn't attend the meeting.

He and other members asked to delay the vote several times. Many of them prefaced their comments by saying they support public comment but didn’t like the way the issue was handled.

Ritz bristled, saying she had done nothing wrong and her calendar simply didn't allow the ad hoc meeting to be scheduled beforehand. She said the question at hand was simple and a delay unnecessary.

Neal said she didn’t want to wait another minute to give the public back its voice.

And board member Tony Walker said the right to comment is so fundamental that it far outweighs any procedural concerns.

After minutes of hedging a vote was taken -- and it passed 7-3.

To contact Niki Kelly email her at nkelly@jg.net or follow her on Twitter @nkellyatJG.

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