Editorial — Timing is everything
Belfast — There are many situations in life where great timing can mean the difference between a positive outcome and, well, something else.
Cooking, comedy and careers immediately come to mind, but an agenda for an upcoming Regional School Unit 20 Board of Directors meeting highlighted a way better timing could make a positive difference in how business is conducted.
Executive sessions, or closed-door discussions amongst directors, administrators and the person or people at the heart of the matter, are not uncommon at school or municipal meetings. They are conducted in that way to protect the identities of employees who may be the subject of a complaint or disciplinary action, and in the case of the district, to shield the identities of students whose conduct has risen to the level of a board action such as expulsion.
The latter is what has concerned us in recent months, as those kinds of issues are often scheduled for executive sessions shortly after the regular meetings are called to order.
Since January, meeting minutes show us there have been six total executive sessions conducted at the very start of the meetings — on one occasion in April, there were two back-to-back executive sessions dealing with the re-admittance of a previously expelled youth and another regarding a student expulsion. That meant the regular meeting in which the public is permitted to attend and participate did not begin until 30 minutes after the scheduled start time. The lengthiest of these student discipline-related executive sessions has been about 45 minutes (we've counted two of these instances in the minutes). A seventh executive session for the re-admittance of an expelled student was scheduled to start off the one scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 13.
Our issue with scheduling these executive sessions in this way is two-fold.
Having these closed-door discussions before the regular meeting and prior to the time on the agenda dedicated to public comment has the potential impact on the willingness of residents to attend the meetings, and then stay long enough to speak their minds. We recognize student disciplinary matters are sensitive ones that require lots of thought on the part of directors, administrators, students and their families. While it can be time consuming to arrive at a decision that best fits the circumstance, we feel the public should not be asked to wait 30-45 minutes before it's their turn to grab the attention of the board. Especially now, when the district has yet to finalize a budget after two tries at the polls this summer. Now is the time to encourage more public participation.
In addition, it increases the possibility of a student who is the subject of disciplinary action being recognized by other members of the public when the youth and their parents emerge and the board takes a public vote on the matter. We know these students and their families want to be out of the meeting and home in time to prepare for school or work the following day, but frankly, so does everyone else. Ultimately, we feel the needs of the greater public outweigh a desire to offer one or two families a convenient time slot on the evening's agenda.
Besides, it wouldn't hurt a young person to sit in on a board meeting, not as a punishment, but as a chance to learn about how their school district operates and the issues that are important to those who attend.
Because even in an instance where a student makes a mistake, there is always a way to turn the situation into a positive. And this way, he or she can do so with anonymity.