Comment issue has echo

Durham board revives panel

Staff WriterJune 24, 2005 

The issue of public comment at Durham school board meetings is again unsettled, as the board voted Thursday night to relaunch the committee charged with reviewing the process.

Controversial changes to public comment that went into effect in March were aimed at making meetings more civil by limiting what the public could talk about at action meetings. Instead, the emotional vote that split along racial lines has caused a public rift between board members and chaos at meetings -- including several arrests of people protesting the new policy.

Board members Heidi Carter, Minnie Forte and Steve Schewel called a news conference last week to offer a compromise for public comment that they hoped would ease tensions, especially for two members -- Vice Chairwoman Regina George-Bowden and Jackie Wagstaff -- and the rest of the board. While George-Bowden and Wagstaff did not fully embrace the olive branch, they did not reject it either, joining the other board members in voting to consider the proposal at a special meeting.

The trio's plan has two points. First, it would establish "Be Our Guest" events, at which parents selected by principals or site-based teams would dine with school board members before the board's monthly action meetings. The board learned of the program created by the Norfolk, Va., school system during an April trip to a national school board conference in San Diego. Second, it would call for public hearings the second Thursday of each month at which parents could speak about whatever they please before the full board.

The recently adopted policy limits public comment at full board meetings to agenda items only. Previously people could sign up to speak about anything they wanted. The board's four white members supported the change, while the three black members did not.

During public comment on the proposal Thursday night, the Rev. Melvin Whitley decried the disrespectful atmosphere of board meetings and urged the board to compromise.

"Why are we demonizing each other?" he asked. "Please pass the public comment resolution and let the listening begin."

But several community members said they thought the red carpet would be for elite parents, and felt the entire proposal should go before the ad hoc school board committee that had labored for weeks to make public comment recommendations.

George-Bowden and Wagstaff agreed, saying they did not like how the three board members had brought the proposal for action without giving the full board a chance to discuss it.

"We're going to do it," Forte said firmly. "We're going to have a 'Be Our Guest' program."

George-Bowden made a motion to re-establish the committee to review the proposal, saying the board was "moving in the right direction." But the motion died after board members got bogged down establishing when that meeting should take place.

Schewel and Carter wanted the proposal brought back before the full board by July 28, but Wagstaff and George-Bowden did not want to be given a deadline. Carter and Schewel said that seemed obstructionist.

"I feel proud of what we've done, we've taken the initiative to try to break an impasse," Schewel said. "I'm sure I've made some mistakes. ... We need to move forward."

After voicing his "extreme" frustration, member Steve Martin made a motion to have a special meeting before July 28, with the intention of having a first reading of any new policy at the action meeting. The motion passed in a rare unanimous vote.

Staff writer Nikole Hannah-Jones can be reached at 956-2433 or nikole.hannahjones@newsobserver.com.

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