Pasco School Board changes public comment rules at its meetings

Published April 17, 2019

Hoping to gain some added control over its biweekly meetings, the Pasco County School Board has decided to return to its past practice of separating its public comment time into two sections.

Beginning with its next meeting, the board intends to allow people who want to speak on agenda items to comment at the beginning of the session. If those speakers do not use up the hour that district policy allows for commenting, those who intend to talk about other items would get the remaining time at the meeting's end.

The board asked for the change as it edged closer to video recording and airing its meetings for the first time. Both board members and staff had concerns about inadvertently publicizing children's private information on the internet.

The goal is to ensure the safety and privacy of students and families, said board member Megan Harding, who has pushed for broadcasting the meetings.

The move comes as the board has struggled to manage large groups of speakers who want to talk about hot topics, such as transgender student rights, that are not scheduled for any decision. Its change is similar to one recently taken by the Volusia County School Board, which also has grappled with public commenting.

Board member Cynthia Armstrong argued strongly for the shift. She suggested that, if the board is going to air its meetings, it should conduct itself in a professional manner.

"We are [going to be] broadcasting the business of the board," Armstrong said. "They're not talking about agenda items."

She and others were ready to take the step of recording each meeting and making recordings available on YouTube shortly after adjournment. Public comments about off-agenda items would not be part of the videos.

Board members said they don't want to spend too much on the system -- they agreed to purchasing an encoder for about $2,000, which they can use with existing camera and sound equipment.

But they liked the idea of getting more information to the general public, even though some said they had not received requests for videos of the meetings.

"The community would be very thankful they can see what's happening and be involved," Harding said, suggesting it would increase transparency.

Vice chairwoman Colleen Beaudoin bristled at the notion that the board had not been transparent, noting it advertises its meetings, posts backup materials online, operates in a public place and makes audio recordings of each meeting, which are available on request.

"This board is extremely transparent," Beaudoin said, stressing that accessibility and transparency are not the same.

The board asked superintendent Kurt Browning to proceed with the broadcasting plans, including creating a new policy relating to video recording of meetings. Board members want to approve a plan and policy before starting the process.

But the initial move to reformat public commenting will begin right away.

Harding said she was pleased with the direction the board is taking.

"I think we had a really good discussion," Harding said. "I'm really thankful the board is willing to make it more accessible to our constituents. I think it's very important."

CONTRACT TALKS: Representatives from the Pasco County school district and the United School Employees of Pasco ended their contract dispute April 13 after four hours of federal mediation.

The sides had been at odds over rules for performance evaluations and added training for teachers at schools in state turnaround status. They had earlier resolved two other areas of disagreement, relating to pay and seniority for layoffs and involuntary transfers, that had led their months-long bargaining effort to an impasse in January.

At the mediation session, the sides reached short-term agreements on training and evaluations, allowing them to move forward before any grant-related money for raises could expire.

Superintendent Kurt Browning advised School Board members via email that the tentative settlement, which still requires a formal ratification vote by both teachers and the board, would allow the district to begin preparing "long overdue pay raises" for the faculty. The school-related personnel wing of the union already ratified its contract and received raises, as did non-bargaining staff.

The sides agreed, meanwhile, to begin longer-range planning for how to overcome remaining differences in the evaluation and training fronts. Some teachers came before the School Board on Tuesday to highlight their concerns.

Former union president Kenny Blankenship criticized the district's method for evaluating "ethical conduct." He noted that the model does not provide guidance on how to move from "effective" to "highly effective" in that performance area, yet it defines the former as being "consistently" ethical and the latter as being "always" ethical.

"They are the same," he argued, reading dictionary definitions. "If I consistently demonstrate ethical conduct, then I always demonstrate ethical conduct."

Teacher Christine Goddard further told the board that it needs to keep evaluation rules in the teachers' contract so the terms are applied evenly to all. District officials have sought to remove the terms from the contract, claiming management authority, which Goddard said leaves room for changes without bargaining.

Already some of the terms, such as the timeline to receive feedback, have been missed at some schools, she said, urging the board to follow past practice of negotiating evaluation rules.

"This is not a coaching model, this is a gotcha model," Goddard told the board.

The board canceled a planned Tuesday executive session, where it was to discuss the contract if mediation had failed. The sides said they would cancel their impasse hearing as unneeded.

SALES TAXES: Penny for Pasco sales tax collections could provide enough money for the school district to add another project to its construction and renovation list.

A district report to the sales tax oversight committee showed the tax has generated $110.3 million since its renewal, nearly 20 percent more than projected. If the revenue continues on this pace, they showed, the district would end up with an added $44.2 million beyond what it anticipated.

To put this in perspective, a new elementary school is projected to cost about $30 million, and a new K-8 school about $60 million.

The district has several projects on its wish list as it grapples with continuing population growth. No specific ideas have been offered to the School Board for any overage.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at Follow @jeffsolochek.