At the House Education Committee meeting in Delaware today, members looked confused as State Board of Education Executive Director Donna Johnson tried to explain to them why they don’t allow public comment before any action items. Citing regulatory laws and charter applications, which are in the synopsis of the bill, Johnson said regulations have a set period of public comment. For charter applications, she said State Board members are required to vote on the charter file which is set up with a public comment period. State Rep. Kim Williams brought House Bill 232 forward because of events she witnessed at State Board of Education meetings.
For a while there, the volley went back and forth between Williams and Johnson. Williams stated she wanted to give public comment on Gateway Lab School’s formal review the day the State Board made their decision but she couldn’t because of this rule. She also cited a recent Regulation, #616, that she wanted to give public comment on but couldn’t. Johnson explained that Regulation 616 was a Secretary only regulation so she could have given public comment. How anyone could ever keep track of all this stuff is beyond me. If you are just a curious member of the public going to these meetings, you would have no clue!
Johnson went on to say the State Board could face a risk of a lawsuit if they voted on something based on a public comment after they have reviewed the entire record. When asked if there has ever been any lawsuit in any situation like this for any state agency, the answer was no. As State Rep after State Rep tried to figure out why the State Board wouldn’t allow public comment, it culminated in State Rep. Sean Lynn stating he felt the opposition to the bill (which only came from Johnson and Kendall Massett with the Delaware Charter Schools Network) was disingenuous and was filled with self-interests. No one on the committee had any reason to oppose the bill and it was released from committee.
For a split second, I almost felt bad for Donna Johnson. Not because I felt she was right, but because she has no idea how she sounds to decision-makers. She doesn’t see how going to bat for her friends in the charter community actually hurts her in the long run. When a fervent charter school supporter like State Rep. Mike Ramone is saying this is an excellent bill and doesn’t understand why this isn’t already allowed, you know there is something wrong with the policy. He questioned Johnson about the ability for a three minute public comment to completely sway a vote. He felt that an official on any board should have enough knowledge of the events to be able to make a sound decision on matters.
Massett gave public comment. She recalled a charter application in Southern Delaware where someone gave a statement that was completely false but there was no ability for the person they were talking about to rebut the comment. This was the only “evidence” she could give to oppose House Bill 232. I believe it was State Rep. Kevin Hensley who stated someone could still file a defamation of character suit in an incident like that.
Both State Reps Kim Williams and Kevin Hensley talked about their time on school boards and they couldn’t fathom not letting the public speak about an action item. Hensley explained there were times when parents or a member of the community approached him about an issue right before a board meeting. He said he would tell them to make sure to give public comment so the whole Board could hear it. Red Clay Superintendent Dr. Merv Daugherty said he may not always like what he hears in public comment, but he appreciates the public comment process. As Lynn said today, “this bill is a no-brainer.”
I gave public comment before the vote. I explained the public comment ban also happens for other charter issues, such as modifications or formal reviews. I cited Family Foundations Academy and the Delaware Met as examples where things happened after the charter record closed and the State Board voted on something without giving the ability to the public to add new events. I said there was an inherent danger with this.
One of the funnier moments came when Ramone kept going on and on about how the meeting room for State Board meetings was too small. He recalled how it is standing room only and many people are forced to stand in the hall. He suggested maybe they meet in the House chambers! While it would be difficult to have seven state board members, an executive director and the Secretary of Education cram into the front of the House chamber, I’ve always suggested utilizing the VERY large conference room at the DOE’s other building over at the Collette Center in Dover. While it isn’t as “official” looking as the Cabinet Room at the Townsend Building, it is certainly big enough to fit the State Board, DOE Chiefs, and at least a hundred members of the public, if not more.
It became very apparent to everyone in the audience today exactly why the Delaware State Board of Education was put on review by the Joint Sunset Committee yesterday. In my opinion, I think this antiquated rule is something that comes from a country where dictators rule and the people are put on mute. Transparency isn’t just being open with your records and dealings, it is also letting the public be transparent about how they feel.
One quick note: House Bill 161, which deals with Parent Empowerment Savings Accounts for students with disabilities, or as most call them, school vouchers, was taken off the agenda for today’s House Education Committee.