WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The interim superintendent of the Mount Greylock Regional School District on Thursday advised the School Committee to continue denying the public access to information lest the committee's work become part of the "public discourse."
Last month, the committee heard a public comment drafted by iBerkshires.com reporter Stephen Dravis that questioned why the body refuses to post supporting material for topics under discussion at public meetings prior to the meeting.
The district's past practice has been to post background material — like a district policy to be voted on in a meeting or a draft budget — after the meeting has occurred, even though it has the mechanism to provide that information to members of the community before the meeting.
"It is unreasonable to require residents to submit comments in advance (or sign up for comment if/when regular public meetings are possible) when they have no idea what there is to comment about," went the public comment read at the Sept. 24 School Committee meeting.
One of the district's two member towns, Williamstown, has a page on its website dedicated to various committees' meeting packets, which members of the public can view before the public body deliberates.
Interim Superintendent Robert Putnam argued that the School Committee should not follow that path.
"The School Committee is the body which needs information in order to conduct its deliberations," Putnam said. "That's why the School Committee would get it in advance of a group. I would argue that if everybody has it, given the modern world we live in, discussions could start long before the School Committee ever has a chance to discuss the material.
"What happens is that social media becomes a forum where things are discussed long before the School Committee has an opportunity to discuss and deliberate and make a decision. One of the difficulties of publishing the materials that the School Committee is going to discuss well in advance is that those things can then become a part of the public discourse on social media, which I don't think would be helpful to calm, reasoned deliberations by a School Committee."
A couple of the School Committee members pushed back against the notion that the public should not be allowed to know what is being discussed before it is discussed and voted on.
"I wonder if the timing of that, if there's a reason it can't happen in advance of the meetings, so that people who make a public comment, can see the materials in the packet that they would be commenting on. … Other boards do it, and it can be helpful for people who are looking to review the materials in advance of the meeting," Jamie Art said.
Steven Miller pointed out that if there are sensitive materials in a packet — like materials related to a personnel matter — they could be redacted from the publicly posted packet, just as they are when the packet eventually gets posted now.
"I think it's advantageous to try to give more information to the public so that they can provide useful comments to us before we have our discussions," Miller said. "If you want to have that not be the full 48 hours [like the agenda posting], have it be 12 hours or six hours so there's still some time for the public to read things and send in public comments or decide if they want to come.
"That would lessen the immediate impact. That might be a nice way to balance. See how that goes for a few meetings."
After the governor's public order suspending certain provisions of the Open Meeting Law, the Mount Greylock School Committee adopted a policy that requires public comments to be submitted in writing two hours prior to its meeting time.
Carolyn Greene noted that the district started with Thursday's meeting to post the packet of information on its website at the start of the meeting (so, it goes live at 6 p.m. for a 6 p.m. meeting), which is in line with its practice before meetings went virtual and attendees at a physical meeting could pick up a printed packet in the meeting room.
She said that just because the materials are emailed to committee members, it does not make them public documents.
"This is intended to be the venue for conversation, and it's not really a conversation between us and our constituents," Greene said. "It's a conversation within the public body. This is why we're elected. It's one of the jobs we're elected to do — to deliberate on the materials at the meeting."
Art responded that allowing everyone access to the materials the committee sees would encourage informed public comments.
"I tend on the competing values thing to fall a little bit to the side of engaging in more transparency with the hope that it might encourage more informed engagement when we get to the public comment period," Art said.
Greene suggested that moving public comment to the end of the School Committee meeting would allow members of the public to see the meeting materials, read through them as they watch the rest of the meeting unfold and submit a comment after the agenda items have been discussed — and, often, voted on.
Much of last Thursday's meeting was devoted to a discussion of the athletic fields at the middle/high school, but it did include a brief recap from Putnam of reports from the district's principals after the start of hybrid instruction that allowed all children back into the schools on a part-time basis starting Oct. 5.
"Everyone has remarked on the ease and expertise of mask-wearing demonstrated by the students," Putnam said. "I, personally, have walked through all of the elementary classrooms during this week, and I can tell you, quite frankly, preschool all the way through sixth grade are better at wearing masks than I see many adults demonstrate."
Putnam promised a more detailed report about the start of in-person instruction at the committee's Oct. 22 meeting.
Thursday's meeting began with an invitation from Julia Bowen of the Mount Greylock Regional School School Council to a Tuesday afternoon meeting of the council's Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Working Group.
"In each of the last two years, the School Improvement Plan has included a goal to support the continued growth of a truly inclusive school culture where all school community members feel they have a voice and that they belong," Bowen said. "The DEI Working Group was formed last spring to focus specifically on this goal."
The DEI group will meet at 4:30 on Tuesday, and a link to the Zoom-based meeting is on the district's website.
Last Thursday's School Committee meeting included a break from the usually pro forma process of approving meeting minutes when Miller asked to have his comments at the Sept. 10 meeting updated.
Referencing the discussion at the September meeting when Putnam notified the School Committee of his decision to put Black Lives Matter signs on school grounds, Miller on Thursday said the following: "I just wanted to expand my comment to say, 'SMiller recommended making our own community statement' and add, 'as posting a BLM sign could open up the district to posting requests from other groups.' As this is what actually happened later."
A review of the tape of the Sept. 10 meeting, viewable on the district's YouTube channel, shows that Miller did not, in fact, make any reference to such a sign "open[ing] up the district to posting requests from other groups."
He did say that a decision by the district to craft its own statement on racial equity "would sidestep some of the issues mentioned in the letter," a reference to a four-page email from attorney Michael Long to the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. In it, Long, who specializes in education law, considered whether posting a Black Lives Matter sign could make the school grounds a "public forum" for discussion and concluded, "a school committee/district statement of support for the BLM movement, standing alone, does not create a forum requiring provision of 'equal time' for opposing views."
Asked on Friday about the apparent discrepancy between what he said in the Sept. 10 meeting and what he asked on Oct. 8 to be added to the Sept. 10 minutes, Miller replied, "The packet mentions, I believe, legal concerns and other groups."
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