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Board Forms Subcommittee to Make Recommendations on Policies for Virtual Public Comments at School Board Meetings

virtualmeetingsOne of the unexpected outcomes of the COVID crisis was the transition of public meetings from in-person to virtual, and the ability of the public to participate and comment remotely. Though this clearly increased public involvement, it also lengthened the meetings, with some Board meetings extending late into the night.

Now that the Governor’s Executive order permitting virtual public meetings has expired, the Scarsdale Board of Education has reverted to its prior policies and virtual public comments are no longer allowed.

At the Board’s August 19 meeting both the League of Women Voters and the Middle School’s PTA leadership read statements urging the Board to permit virtual public comments. They cited the benefits of receiving more feedback and facilitating “robust public engagement.” Allowing people to comment remotely made it possible for people who were unable to attend the meetings in person to be a part of the process.

Board President Karen Ceske addressed the issue and led a discussion about the board’s policy at the meeting. She explained that they had conferred with their attorney who said that four Board policies would need to be amended to permit virtual public comment.

She said “The Board recognizes its responsibility to hear and respond to public comments and therefore encourages public participation at board meetings. Members of the public have raised the issue of the board allowing for remote public comment at Board meetings. Last year’s board discussed and made an amendment to board policy on one aspect of public participation and that was time. In consulting with our attorney several board policies would need to be amended.”

Ceske recommended that this work be done by a board committee to address the topic of public comment. She asked the board if there was interest in looking at these policies to adapt them for remote public participation.

Several board members agreed to the idea of a committee, but Board member Ron Schulhof asked that virtual comments could be permitted until the new policies are adopted. Dr. Hagerman said Board policies now prohibit this but the board can elect to suspend its own policies at a board meeting. He suggested adding the item to the agenda at the September 20, 2021 meeting and voting in the first half of the meeting to allow virtual public comment during the second public comments period at that meeting.

After considerable discussion the Board decided to form a board subcommittee to make recommendations to amend the policy, and Karen Ceske, Ron Schulholf and Jessica Resnick-Ault agreed to serve on it.

For the next meeting, they agreed to add the item to their agenda which would allow them to suspend the usual rules for that meeting only. If it passes, they will permit virtual public comment during the second half of that meeting.

Here are statements from the Scarsdale Middle School PTA Executive Committee and the Board of Directors of the League of Women Voters of Scarsdale advocating for virtual public comments.

Scarsdale Middle School PTA Executive Committee

The Scarsdale Middle School PTA Executive Committee (“SMS PTA EC”) strongly encourages the Board of Education (the “Board”) to allow remote public comment during the “Hearing from Those Present” section of its meetings.

The SMS PTA EC believes that robust, active and diverse public engagement and participation are essential to the Board’s process. In the 2020-21 school year, the incorporation of remote public comment further expanded community engagement on district issues.

The restoration of remote public comment would allow middle school parents, who may be unable to attend the Board’s evening meetings in-person, to more fully engage in district issues and publicly participate in meetings. The SMS PTA EC hopes that the Board reinstates remote public comment in order to increase accessibility and to hear from a more diverse group of voices.

Sincerely,

The Scarsdale Middle School PTA Executive Committee

Leah Dembitzer, President
Deb Lichtenstein, President Elect
Ophira Cukierman, Treasurer
Sam Carter, Secretary
Yi Yang, VP Membership and Directory
Stephanie Klingsberg, VP Programming
Lori Harrison, VP School Events and Initiatives

League of Women Voters of Scarsdale

I am Alissa Baum President of the League of Women Voters of Scarsdale, and I am speaking on behalf of the League Board of Directors.
The League’s position is that the Open Meeting Law allows remote public comment.

As the League stated publicly on June 21, 2021: "One of the League’s central missions is to promote the public’s active participation in government. The League has recognized and supported the School Board’s efforts to increase accessibility to the community through its coffees, listening sessions, and attendance at community events. Maintaining virtual public comment is one more avenue through which the School Board can broaden the public’s access to and participation in School Board meetings."

Furthermore, the League has continuously advocated that a more complete picture of community feedback, combined with relevant expert opinions and research, will serve to enhance Board decisions on complex issues and their implementation. This will then serve to facilitate community understanding and appreciation of Scarsdale schools. Remote public comment is a novel method of outreach discovered during the past 18 months that serves that end.

We understand that the advisory opinion recently issued by New York State’s Committee on Open Government makes clear that government officials, such as school board members, can participate in public meetings by video conference so long as certain statutory requirements are met. That advisory opinion does not prohibit virtual public comment.

The advisory opinion explains that the “fundamental premise of the Open Meetings Law is that any person who is interested in the deliberations of a public body is permitted to view and listen to such deliberations as they occur.” Thus, the advisory opinion finds that, to fulfill this premise, the public must be able to view a public meeting “at any site” at which a Board member is participating.

With regard to the participation of those who are not Board members, the advisory opinion states that, “the Open Meetings Law does not prohibit a public body from permitting invited guests (i.e., anyone who is not a member of the public body, but who has been asked to actively participate in the meeting) to speak or testify using a remote access platform."

The School Board has the right to invite anyone, including the public, to speak at a Board meeting using a remote access platform. In today’s meeting, it is simply choosing not to do so. This is counter to the very essence of the Open Meetings Law, which seeks to ensure robust public engagement with elected bodies. It is also counter to the support of public engagement to which the League subscribes and defends. It defies basic logic to allow Board Members to comment virtually but not the public. The League Board once again respectfully requests that the Board reconsider its decision denying the public the opportunity to comment at meetings virtually.

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