Public comment might be limited at Schenectady school board meetings as the board prepares for a contentious referendum.
In January, the board will ask the public for permission to renovate middle schools, rather than continuing the district’s new K-8 configuration.
A number of parents are vehemently opposed to middle schools, and public debate on the issue during privilege of the floor has sometimes taken more than an hour at recent board meetings.
Board President Cathy Lewis also has always read aloud letters submitted by residents who can’t attend the meeting, which adds to the amount of time devoted to public comment. There were five letters read at the last meeting.
New board member Ed Kosiur proposed Wednesday that the board stop reading those letters aloud. He questioned whether they were written by actual residents.
“I really see something coming down the pike where we get inundated by a bunch of letters from people who really don’t exist,” he said.
Board member John Foley added the time taken for public comment was a problem. He called for strict enforcement of a 3-minute limit per speaker.
“And I mean very strict,” he said. “Usually when we get inundated is when we have very important business to discuss. What happens is we’re here at 11 o’clock at night making the important decision.”
He said the lateness of the hour made it harder to make a good decision.
But other board members defended public comment. Board member Cheryl Nechamen said the board usually took on the big issue early in the meeting, saving the “boring stuff” for 11 p.m.
She added that letters might be the only way for some residents to add their opinion to the debate.
“There are some people who can’t make it to the meetings. Maybe they don’t work a 9-to-5 schedule,” she said. “We don’t receive that many letters. I don’t think it’s been abused.”
Board member Ron Lindsay agreed the letters are important.
“As a transparent board, I think that communication should be there,” he said.
Board member Andrew Chestnut proposed a compromise: Letters could be read aloud, but only for 3 minutes per letter. He added he was “untroubled” by the possibility of fake letter-writers.
Kosiur also argued Lewis shouldn’t read the letters, if they are read aloud.
“It carries more weight if it’s read by the board president,” he said.
Chestnut agreed and suggested letters be read by the board clerk.
Lewis said she was concerned about reading the letters aloud because residents weren’t at the meeting.
“They’re not hearing our response,” she said. “It is a concern particularly if the item is up for discussion later.”
She told the board she would decide what to do with letters and announce the rules once she’s made a decision. Other board members expressed surprise at that, but did not argue.
Kosiur first brought up the issue, he said, because letters are not read aloud at Schenectady City Council and Schenectady County Legislature meetings. He has been a member of both bodies.