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Public period for comments not best method to address Mehlville board, Heins contends


Editor's note: See related column in "Opinions" section.

The open period for comments from the public scheduled at the beginning of each Mehlville Board of Education meeting is not the board's preferred form of communication with the public, according to board member Mike Heins.

During a recent Board of Education meeting, Heins asked administrators to inform residents of ways to address board members other than the public comment period.

"If we could ask the administration ... to look better at how people could better communicate with us," Heins said Feb. 10 during a Board of Education meeting, noting that formal instructions for communication with the board are given at the beginning of board books supplied to the public upon request. "This (the public comment period) is probably the worst way to communicate with the board."

Any district resident who would like to address the board on a matter that affects the entire district can speak during the open comment period at the beginning of each board meeting, according to the procedure listed in each board book. Under the procedure, individuals are allowed to speak for three minutes. When a group wishes to address the board on the same topic, the procedure calls for selecting a spokesperson who will be able to address the board for five minutes.

However, board presidents traditionally have exercised their discretion in enforcing the three-minute time limit and spokesperson stipulations of the procedure.

Heins requested that Patrick Wallace, the district's school/community relations director, let members of the public know that if they have a concern, they should first contact administration and then if the problem is not resolved, they should contact board members.

He emphasized that board members should be contacted through e-mail or their phone numbers listed on the district's Web site, www.mehlvilleschooldistrict.com.

"It's not two-way," board member Rita Diekemper said.

"No it's not two-way," Heins responded. "I don't think we're doing a good enough job telling our community the best way to communicate with our district. I've been thinking about that a lot."

Heins' comments came near the end of a meeting in which a resident had approached the board confused as to what she could or could not say during the meeting's formal open period for comments about construction bids the board was scheduled to consider that night for Blades, Beasley and Point elementary schools.

Board President Cindy Christopher addressed Denise Downing, a mother of a Beasley Elementary pupil, before the open comment period, warning her that the board would not respond to any of her comments.

"You can speak to the board, however the board will not comment on anything that is heard only because it is not on our agenda," Christopher told Downing.

"And this is not on the agenda?" Downing said to Christopher, referring to the Blades, Beasley and Point bids that were included on the board's Feb. 10 agenda.

Christopher answered, "It's not on the specific agenda. This is the open period for comments ... but the board will not address you. This is just for us to listen ..."

Downing asked board members to keep parents in mind when considering the renovation work at Beasley, which primarily involves air conditioning upgrades, but has come in over budget.

"We know and we're aware of the facts of the financial concerns of the situation. We would like to let our concerns be known too," she said, noting parents had been active and involved during the Proposition P process at Beasley. "... And we're asking that the board and the school district keep that in mind as they make their decision to add to the improvements to be done at Beasley Elementary."

She later asked from her seat in the audience, "Is this something that can be brought up at a later time or date ... or this is it?"

"This is the open period for comments to address any issues that you think the board needs to address," Christopher told Downing. "If you have something specific, I would recommend that you talk with members of the administration ... if it's something specific, it wouldn't be addressed in this forum."

Christopher later agreed with Heins' statements about the public comment period.

"Unfortunately this venue, the open forum, is not always the best way to communicate with us," she said.

On a regular basis, Christopher said, she received phone calls from people in the community and encouraged the public to call board members with questions or comments.

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