By Elise Franco
and Ashley Luthern
How the Austintown Board of Education conducts the public comment portion of its meetings has become a major point of contention over the past several months.
Austintown school board President Tom Stellers said the board allots 30 minutes for public comment for only Austintown residents who must sign in to speak.
He said the board takes every comment, question or concern under advisement and is willing to meet or talk with people in private for further discussion.
“If there is an issue, you contact the superintendent [Vincent Colaluca] and he’ll get the question answered,” Stellers said. “Or you can call one of us.”
During recent meetings, many people addressing the board have demanded immediate responses to their questions because they say the board and Colaluca aren’t available for meetings.
“I have never ignored anyone who has called, but my phone isn’t ringing off the hook,” Stellers said. “It’s called public comment, not discussion or debate. The intent is for people to come and comment on the agenda.”
Board member Harold Porter said he doesn’t agree with the tight-lipped policy but can’t say anything while a meeting is in session because the board president is considered the spokesman.
“People need to know the facts, so if [the board] doesn’t know the answer [Stellers] should just say that,” Porter said. “Honestly it’s not the place for debate; it’s a place to conduct school business, but if you tell people that, it sounds confrontational, and it becomes a debate.”
There has been confrontation between Colaluca and Porter, who sent an email last month to Colaluca and the rest of the school board, calling for the superintendent’s resignation. In the email, Porter called Colaluca a “dictator” and an inadequate leader.
Stellers, meanwhile, said he contacted the Ohio School Boards Association and was told the Austintown policy was the recommended way to conduct public comment.
Mary Ann Herschel, district treasurer, said the board’s public-comment policy was adopted in September 2006 when members voted to adopt the OSBA’s policy-service manual. Herschel said all board policy information is available on the district website, www.austintown.k12.oh.us/main, under the “Board of Education” tab.
Former Austintown school board member Michael Creatore, who served from 2004 to 2007, said during his tenure the board often responded immediately to questions it could answer.
“If it was a policy item we would discuss it, and if it needed to be researched we would get back to them,” he said. “But if it’s a question you can answer and you don’t respond, that’s not what you were elected to do.”
A sampling of other local districts showed that most boards don’t conduct public comment the same way, but they do believe communicating with the public is important.
Poland school board president Larry Dinopoulos said public comment is a part of every board meeting and almost every work session, which takes place a week before meetings.
“We have been having it as part of the work session just to be more transparent. We think that’s fair,” he said.
In the past, Poland school boards would not always respond to residents’ concerns at the meetings, he said.
“[This board] just felt there should be some dialogue. They come to the meeting, they voice a question, they have a right to an answer if we have one. ...We have a responsibility to share what our thoughts are instead of sitting there stone faced,” Dinopoulos said.
If school officials or board members are unable to answer a question or if time constraints are tight, Dinopoulos said they try to research it and respond to the resident sometime after the meeting.
In Springfield, the school board meets for caucus at 7 p.m. and has a public comment session at 7:45 p.m., during which residents do not have to sign in and can speak about any topic affecting the district, said Superintendent Debra Mettee.
The caucus is followed by the regular meeting at 8 p.m., which also has a public comment session that is more formal: Residents are asked to sign in and stick to topics on that night’s agenda, she said.
“It depends on the situation whether the board might respond. If it’s a simple question, they might respond or have treasurer or superintendent respond, but again it’s not time for a debate. We have other forums for that if they want a lot of interaction and board members available to take a call at other times,” Mettee said.
For questions that require a longer response, board members often will tell the resident that someone would address the question at a later time, she said.
“In a broader sense, communication is vital with the board and the community. It keeps everybody involved and let’s everyone know they have a part in this,” Mettee said. “... Our communities are made up of diverse opinions, and we don’t always agree but the interaction is important.”