FARMINGTON — Until a Public Participation Policy at Regional School Unit 9 board meetings can be reviewed, the school board will follow its current policy, directors agreed Tuesday.

That Policy Committee is expected to review it in January.

The school board has wrangled with setting guidelines to allow public comment at board meetings, especially budget meetings, and still get board business done.

Last year during the budget process, members of the public were allowed to speak whenever they raised their hands. Board Chairwoman Jennifer Zweig Hebert set up a sign-up sheet for public comments, but it did not stick. Some comments went long, some were off topic and some attacked district personnel.

The board is the legislative body of the district, which is different from a town where the people are the legislative body, Zweig Hebert said. It is necessary to have guidelines to keep the meeting running efficiently and conduct business, she said.

Director Helen Wilkey of Vienna brought information from Maine School Management Association’s Fall Conference on board meetings. Copies of the document from the Drummond Woodsum law firm were distributed to the board at a workshop Dec. 6.

According to the document, “A school board meeting must be held in public, but the public does not have the right to participate in the meeting. The fact is difficult for many school boards to grasp, perhaps because of Maine’s history of town meetings. It is even harder for members of the public to grasp. To repeat, however, school board meetings are not meetings of the public; they are meetings of elected officials at which the public only has the right to attend. The extent to which the public participates is entirely up to the school board.”

Most school boards feel the need to allow some opportunity for public comment at their meetings, the document continues.

“Boards doing so are well-advised to have clear rules addressing when comment should occur, the permissible topics, decorum and other considerations. Comment on private personnel and student matters should not be permitted, and issues that should appropriately be dealt with at the teacher, principal or superintendent level should be referred back to those levels,” according to the document.

The board must follow the current policy, which was adopted in 1994 and reviewed in 2009, until the Policy Committee reviews it and brings recommendations to the board, Superintendent Tom Ward told the board Tuesday. 

If people want to speak on an agenda item, particularly during the budget process, they could sign up and let the superintendent or chairwoman know the topic they wish to address, Ward said.

They would have to follow the guidelines and not get into discussion of personnel, he said.

The chairwoman has the right to limit public comment time and, if there is a group, only allow one representative to speak, Ward said.

Putting a copy of the policy on the back of the printed agenda was also discussed. 

The board’s current policy can be found on the district’s website www.mtbluersd.org. Go to District Information on the main menu and then board of directors and the policy manual can be accessed.

Director Craig Stickney of Chesterville reminded the board that it must make sure it follows its own policy to notify the public of meetings and get the agenda distributed. 

The law does not require a school board to distribute agendas in advance of each meeting; however, the board’s policy does.

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