Oped | School Board Members entitled to meeting agendas

** Clarification from author: In reading some of the responses both on Living Snoqualmie and social media, it became evident that one point of  clarification is necessary. Marci Busby’s words about preferring questions being withheld during school board meetings was directed at fellow board mates and not members of the public. It is her clearly stated preference that all questions about meeting business be asked of the superintendent after a meeting. Unfortunately, doing this means those discussions would be off the record, a clearly reckless and inappropriate approach. The Superintendent is accountable to the board (and by extension, the public), and asking questions during a meeting is a foundational part of that accountability.

Ms. Busby states the following: “I don’t think that we should do something that would put the district on the spot” When asked when board members can ask questions, she replies “afterwards.” **


Original Oped

[Author: Snoqualmie City Councilmember, Brad Toft. This piece reflects the views of the author.]

The Snoqualmie Valley School District leadership continues its struggle with generally accepted practices of governmental transparency. More evidence came to light during a recent meeting, when Superintendent Joel Aune and Board President Geoff Doy faced requests from fellow board members to provide complete agendas 24 hours prior to meetings. Public meetings statutes require the practice, and boilerplate agendas are in fact being provided. However, they are bereft of specific topics and exhibits to be covered during the meetings.

School board members expressed concern that the limited agendas being provided were not sufficient for them to be adequately prepared. Board members are right to expect complete agendas in advance—as is, t00, the general public—but those concerns were rebuffed. When pressed, the rationale was offered that the superintendent and board president do not want meetings to be disrupted with surprise questions. In an age where the rise of terms like “fake news” have actual meaning, the idea of surprise questions in the context of a public meeting is equally concerning. It advances the idea that any question one does not like is unacceptable to ask. That idea places a dangerous chill on public discourse.

Board member Marci Busby stated that school board meetings are not the place to ask questions. Her position is equally chilling.

One must wonder about certain board member’s naked contempt for transparency and the voting public. Voters elect representatives who will be engaged, not passive observers or rubber stamps. It should be a strategic goal of school district leadership to engage all stakeholders in board meetings and ask the tough questions.

Those in leadership who subscribe to a kind of opaqueness that stifles dissent, need to re-examine their approach. If they will not change their ways, then they should draw challengers when election time comes.

Comments

  1. “There will be no questions.” Some of us have heard this before.

  2. Susan Sweitzer says

    Could not agree more! Thank you Danna.

  3. While the cities of North Bend and Snoqualmie receive high marks re: transparency, the school and hospital districts still have room for improvement. However, Brad, your criticism of the school board meetings not being the place to ask questions can also apply to you as an elected council member.

    As you are aware, the “Public Comment” period during any public meeting is the time for anyone to ask a question. However, it is the answers that are commonly missing, regardless if the meeting is for the school board or city council.

    It is my experience questions go unanswered during the public comment period at city council meetings. It is also my understanding this period in only meant for one-way communication (from the constituents to the elected). And the time for a two-way dialog is during committee meetings, retreats, town halls, and one-on-one meetings. Of course, a constituent can ask a rhetorical question during the public comment period, so the elected official is put on notice and the question becomes part of the public record.

    I don’t know Marci, and I don’t really care for her politics, but perhaps you are taking her message out of context–especially since you currently participate in the very process you are criticizing.

    Brad, I suggest if you want the school district board meetings to make a change, that you lead by example and host regular Q&A sessions at all of your meetings.

    • Hi Maddie, I appended my opinion letter based on several readers feedback. It was clear that a distinction needed to be made about who Ms. Busby was referring to when she stated her views on asking questions during board meetings.

      The Snoqualmie City Council observes rules of order for meetings. Those allow for public comment and questions to be posed. It is at the discretion of the Mayor and the Council to respond in that setting. The reason for this it to maintain meeting order and respect everyone’s time.

      Outside of that I make myself available online on my Facebook page and my website for inquiry. People are always welcome to call me as well.

      • Hello Brad, I agree with the importance of the open dialogue you present in your letter, and also concur with your highlighted problems with the school board (and also similar problems with the hospital district board).

        I just find it interesting that when you, as an elected council member, don’t yield to public questions during council meetings, it is to “maintain meeting order and respect everyone’s time.” and the “Snoqualmie City Council observes rules of order for meetings.”

        However, when school board member Marci Busby purposes something similar to the way the city council conducts business, it is “clearly [a] reckless and inappropriate approach.” Perhaps the public could present written questions to the board and council a week prior to the meeting, so elected officials and staff members have time to prepare a response, and there are not any on-the-spot “gotcha” questions that Marci Busby is concerned about. -M

        • This opinion piece is specifically about the stated idea that school board members should remain silent or only agreeable during meetings only to ask questions of the superintendent after the meeting, and off the record. Voters expect engaged board members to hold the school administration accountable. Opinions about what constitutes gotcha questions vary, so there is no practical way to mediate what would fall into that category. If one has a problem answering difficult, probing questions in public, I would suggest holding a position in public administration is not the right career for them.

          In closing, to date there has not been a case where a member of the public has addressed a question directly to me in a council meeting. If one were to do so, it would be up to the discretion of the Mayor to allow a response, as it is he who presides over council meetings. I am available any time to answer questions, and make a point of answering citizen inquiries that are posed to me directly via phone, email and social media.

          You can have the final word here Maddie, and you are always welcome to reach out to me directly. If you are the same Maddie that frequently responds to my opinion pieces, I admire your engagement. Citizen involvement is crucial to healthy representative government.

          • …so, in summary:

            1) You are willing to criticize another elected body’s way of conducting business, but you are unwilling to self-reflect and look at ways to improve your own: by blaming the mayor for how he conducts meetings.

            (FYI… you can always override the mayor and answer public questions with a “Point of Order” or ask questions of staff with a “Point of Information,” just as any of the other school board members can ask administration a question during their meetings ~OR~ you can “Appeal the Decision of the Chair” if you disagree with how the mayor is conducting the meeting.)

            2) You attribute second- or third-hand information as a direct quote from a school board member, when you admit you were not even there to hear the statement.

            3) Instead of looking for common ground and ways to improve your process, you go out of your way to argue how you are right and others are wrong.

            4) You create an environment where not even one person feels comfortable asking you a question during council meetings.

  4. Couldn’t agree more! I used to attend meetings and thought that this practice had changed. What a shame. Questions should be allowed, as should answers. Why make the meetings open to the public, if the work is going to be done in a vacuum.

  5. Tavish MacLean says

    I debated whether to respond to this misleading, inflammatory OpEd piece from Mr. Toft, but I can’t be silent on this matter.

    First, the Snoqualmie Valley School Board is in full compliance with the Washington State Open Public Meetings Act (Chapter 42.30 RCW), publishing agendas prior to each open, public meeting through a link on the district web site. The web-based tool (called BoardDocs) is widely used across the country and has many benefits but the format leaves something to be desired in more fully describing what will be covered in each major heading (e.g. “Capital Facilities Program Update” does not currently offer sub-bullets to list which specific facilities will be discussed). This is an opportunity I’m confident we’ll meet.

    Second, Mr. Toft is taking board member statements out of context and then falsely ascribing intent. As we attempt to follow best practices for governance, we recently had a facilitated work session to evaluate results from a self-assessment on how well we’re adhering to accepted behaviors. One of these behaviors is that the board and the Superintendent adhere to a “no surprises” rule. This does not mean no questions should be asked. On the contrary, it means that board members will let the Superintendent know when hard questions will be asked so he and his staff can address these questions in the report to the board and the public. I believe this is what my board colleague Ms. Busby was referring to in her comments during the work session.

    I’m fine with disagreement in an OpEd, even if not respectful, but unfounded accusations that undermine credibility have no place.

    • I sensed there was more to the story. Thanks for sharing another perspective.

    • Brad Toft says

      Mr. MacLean’s assertion that the school board leadership is in compliance with the law may be technically true, but it is debatable. That is likely why the topic arose from a plurality of members for discussion at the 1/31 meeting I attended.

      MacLean is of the opinion that my Op ed takes board members statements out of context. That claim lacks specifics and substance. It does not identify any statement made by me as taken out of context, but rather he chooses to paint with a broad brush. He offers a philosophical defense for the board’s conduct and procedures but does not address specific practices.

      These platitudes just won’t do. In the piece submitted, I offer readers the courtesy of facts and specifics for the public to discuss. These are based on my attending the meeting and review of a recording of the meeting. One can disagree with my opinion, but the ad hominem response (“I debated whether to respond to this misleading, inflammatory OpEd piece…”) offered by Mr. MacLean provides no substantive argument to my position that board members can ask whatever questions they want in meetings and that complete agendas should be made available 24 hours in advance of meetings.

      Mr. MacLean’s response is of the familiar “kill the messenger” variety. The school board members should look for ways to engage the opinions of the community rather than attack those who speak up.

  6. Jeannie Saimo says

    This comment is confusing to me. Mr. MacLean, how can you as a board decide to have a “no surprises rule” when you yourself stated the agendas are not specific? Does the board get other separate agendas with more details so you as board members can be alerted as to what can be asked or not?

    I recall vividly attending a school board meeting when my high school daughter wanted to make a public comment. Mr. Doy shut her down before she even said a word because what she was going to comment was on the agenda. Point A, no it was not! Not even close was it defined that her comment would be covered on your meeting based on the agenda. Point B, How did Mr. Doy know what my daughter was going to say? My daughter, who was brave enough to speak at the public comment portion of a school board meeting was unceremoniously shut down by the school board president and reduced to tears. Talk about a surprise!

    I feel like school board members should be able to ask what they like and if the superintendent or staff is not prepared to go in to detail about whatever the questions are then just say so. Since when are questions a bad thing? What I did find disrespectful was the way your school board president treated a SVSD student at one of your meetings.

    • So, I want to make sure I am understanding Mr. MacLean’s comments correctly:
      1). He agrees the Agenda’s have room for improvement. He suggests that he is confident that this will be corrected. When?
      2). Mr. MacLean opines the Board is in compliance with Open Public Meeting rules. I wonder what the rules would suggest about Agenda’s being published less than 24 hours in advance and being so vague? That doesn’t seem to lend itself to the whole “Open Public” theory.
      3). Mr. MacLean opines that questions are allowed; however, they cannot be surprise questions. If this is the case, how is a member of the public to know what would be a “surprise” question and what would not be a “surprise” question. Also, seeing that Agenda’s are published so late and are vague, how is a member of the public supposed to ask a question of the board so it is NOT a surprise? Do board members expect members of the public to ask questions beforehand so that they can be answered during the board meeting? This is so very confusing and does not seem to lend itself to public discourse.
      4). Lastly, although Mr. MacLean does not address this specific topic I recall that the Board is not happy with social media being used to discuss important educational based issues.
      In conclusion, is it fair to say that the board really does not represent the public and actually represents the District seeing that (1) the agendas it provides are vague; (2) the agendas are not published to the website in enough time and with enough information for the public to understand what is going to be discussed; and (3) even speaking about educational issues on facebook is considered offensive? It certainly appears to be that way..

  7. “There will be no questions.” Some of us have heard that before…..before some of these folks were on the school board. They know not whereof they speak.

  8. Tavish MacLean says

    I’ve said my peace in this forum. Happy to address further questions individually for anyone sincerely interested in understanding. You can reach me at macleant@svsd410.org. Thank you.

  9. @Tavish. So, you would prefer questions by email so that we can understand the meaning? In the spirit of open disclosure, I think you should respond here. That way, everyone gets the same answer and your response becomes public. if you prefer emails, then your response is, for all intents and purposes, off the record. I believe that is the point of Mr. Toft’s Op-ed, isn’t it?

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