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October 7, 2020 - 2:28pm

City School's new board president wants board to be more responsive to public questions

posted by Howard B. Owens in schools, education, news, batavia, City Schools, notify.
boe.aliceannbenedict.may2020c.jpg
                  Alice Ann Benedict

Alice Ann Benedict is in only her fourth month as president of the Board of Education for Batavia city schools but she's already looking to make a significant change to a board policy that she said has bothered her for a long time.

Under the previous leadership of Pat Burk, who resigned suddenly over the summer, if a member of the public came to a board meeting and asked a question, Burk would inform the speaker, "We don't answer questions from the public."

Benedict wants to provide the public with public answers to board questions.

She brought the issue to the board's attention at Monday's meeting and Superintendent Anibal Soler Jr. suggested after the board discussion that the board hold off on changing the policy until staff can formalize the language and make a recommendation.

If the board adopts Benedict's suggestion, the district will offer a form on the district's website where members of the public could ask questions of the board. If the question is submitted prior to a set deadline -- such as 5 p.m. on the Thursday before the board's Monday meeting -- then either the board president or the superintendent would prepare an answer. At the next board meeting, during the "public speaks" portion of the agenda, the question and answer would be read aloud. 

Currently, Benedict said, if a question is sent to the district, either she or Soler answer it and the board never sees the question unless Benedict forwards it to them. Benedict would like the entire board to be informed of questions from the public.

During COVID-19 restrictions, members of the public are not attending meetings but once restrictions are lifted, Benedict wants the board to have in place a policy that would allow members of the public to ask questions. If questions are submitted in advance, they will be answered at the meeting. If not, the board president or superintendent will answer the question at a subsequent meeting.

Benedict expressed concern that some people, like herself, are not "quick on their feet" when it comes to answering questions, which is why she wants a built-in delay on answering questions so there is time for research and consideration.

"I always felt like before when I was on the board, I never liked the idea that if a community member took time to come to the board to make a comment or ask a question, we would never answer," Benedict said. "We would never answer the question. That really bothered me."

At first, Trustee Shawna Murphy seemed a little confused by the suggestion, noting that the public has always been allowed to speak at meetings.  After Benedict spoke more about her idea, Murphy said, "sounds beautiful."

Soler said it usually takes two readings for the board to adopt a new policy. He said the policy should incorporate best practices for dealing with public speakers and also suggested the policy should mimic what he said other districts do, which requires public speakers to sign up to speak hours in advance of the meeting "so people can't come and disrupt the meeting."

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