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School board not happy with forums


When previous Howard County school boards dreamed up a public forum called Listening Post many years ago, the idea was that any interested person would be able to speak up about any concerns, have his or her comments heard and ultimately be responded to.

Listening Post still exists, but not the way it was intended, and board members say now might be the time to change it.

"Listening Post has had its day," said Sandra H. French, school board chairman. "It might be time for a new time, a new day, a new format, just something different."

Board members have researched how other counties handle such forums and will discuss how and if to make any changes at its board meeting tomorrow night.

The posts work this way: At every regularly scheduled open board meeting - which usually is split into an afternoon and evening session - general business does not begin until the public has been given an opportunity to speak on any issue that is not on that meeting's agenda. A maximum of five people are allowed before each session; each speaker gets three minutes.

It isn't board policy, but it has been the board's practice not to respond right away to Listening Post speakers. Those who address the board are asked to leave hard copies of their comments and a board or staff member will attempt to reply by letter within a week or two.

"There's been a lot of public discussion of it," said board member Stephen C. Bounds, "and it's clear to me and to others that nobody's really happy with the way it works. So we need to do something about it."

There are several problems with the forums, board members say. Being unable to address the speakers often gives the false impression that no one is listening, some say. Limiting topics to items not on the agenda is too restrictive to the community, others say.

Most visible to community members is that the board's informal "practice" of listening silently to speakers and responding later is inconsistently followed.

At its last meeting, for example, Superintendent John O'Rourke surprised the board by publicly chastising Listening Post speaker Barry Tevelow for "attack[ing] my staff members about wrongdoings they simply have not committed," and asked Tevelow to stop using a student-led newspaper for his own "personal views."

When Tevelow asked to respond, French said the conversation should continue later.

At a May meeting, French responded to a speaker's comments by asking audience members to raise their hands if they agreed with him - something she said she had never done before.

This spring, police had to be called to regain control of a meeting when about 100 students and parents took over a Listening Post to protest former middle school teacher Kristine Lockwood's then-pending dismissal.

Board members' unhappiness with Listening Post started long before such incidents occurred, French said, though how and when speakers are responded to is a concern. "We haven't been happy with them for a long time," she said. "There are minutes [of meetings] going back to 1997 where I wanted to change it."

French and board member Jane B. Schuchardt said they would prefer it if speakers were able to receive answers, or a reply of some sort, sooner.

"Before I ever ran [for school board], I testified about something and I remember thinking, 'Well, did they hear me or not?'" Schuchardt said. "I want people to leave knowing that we've listened to them and probably get a response from us right then and there."

Wanda Hurt, immediate past president of the Howard County PTA Council, said she and others would like to see the Listening Posts televised on cable, just as the rest of the board meetings are.

Bounds said he is opposed to televising Listening Post, because it could foster theatrics and political soap-boxing, instead of intelligent discussion of educational issues.

"As far as people using [Listening Post] for individual attacks against board members, which has happened a lot lately, that just comes with the territory. That won't change," he said. "But I do not support televising it. That would just encourage some of the kinds of things that we've seen lately. They'd really just be performing for the cameras."

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