RACINE — The Racine Unified School Board is looking into ways to better engage with the public and for the public to better engage with it.
Multiple board members agree that the public input period of its monthly business meeting is not the best way to gauge the true collective wishes of those living in the district.
“We’ve really got to be able to find a way to get the right feedback at the right time and do more listening,” School Board President Robert Wittke Jr. said during Monday night’s board work session.
Wittke made several recommendations for changes the board might make during the coming months to better engage with the public. One suggestion is to allow public comments during the board’s monthly work sessions on issues discussed during those sessions. Currently the board only allows public comment during its business meetings and it limits those comments to 2 minutes per person.
Another recommendation is to institute a listening session at least once a quarter prior to a board business meeting.
Wittke also suggested that the board formulate and post responses to issues voiced during the public comment period. Currently, the board can’t discuss or respond to issues brought up during the public input period because those specific items aren’t on the meeting agenda. Wittke said the board could formulate an opinion on those issues during the work session that follows that meeting and then post the responses in some way.
“One of the things that I’m fairly frustrated with is that we don’t have a chance to formulate an opinion (following public comment),” Wittke said.
Prior to the board work session on Monday night, the board’s governance committee decided not to take any action on a proposal to lengthen the business meeting public comment limit from 2 minutes to 3 minutes. The committee made this decision in order to give all nine School Board members a chance to give input on the matter during the work session.
Board member Julie McKenna said she favors a lengthened time limit.
“I still don’t like leaving it at 2,” she said. “I’d like to have it at 3.”
Board member Michael Frontier said he was in favor of some of Wittke’s public engagement proposals and suggested that the board decide on the time limit later, after working out some of the other details.
The usefulness of public comment
Board member Brian O’Connell opined that the most important part of the board’s monthly business meeting is to conduct the business of the district, not to hear public comments.
Board member Dennis Wiser said there are two types of people who speak during the public input period. In his eyes, the first type of person is someone dealing with an issue specific to themselves. This person typically doesn’t know who can help resolve the issue, but usually the superintendent can handle it without School Board input.
Wiser believes the second type of person is someone who voices an opinion on an issue while claiming to represent a broad category of people in the community, but the board doesn’t necessarily know how many others this person truly represents.
“This is a lousy mechanism for gauging what the public thinks,” Wiser said. “If we get 10 comments in one night, we feel like we’ve heard from the entire planet, but that’s maybe 10 people out of 150,000 that live in the school district.”
Wiser believes that this isn’t a good way to gauge public sentiment.
Superintendent weighs in
Although Superintendent Lolli Haws said that the administration follows up on concerns addressed during the public input period of meetings, she questioned whether the mechanism is as useful today as it was in the past.
Decades ago, she said, the best way to communicate with the district was to attend a meeting and speak before the board. Now, board members have generally already been informed about the issues they hear during public comment via phone call or email.
“I tend to wonder if public comment is almost an outdated thing anymore,” Haws said.
Wittke said he plans to soon begin crafting public engagement policies to refer to the board’s governance committee.