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By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — The Colfax Board of Education changed the public comment policy at the June meeting from five minutes per person to three minutes per person.
Reducing the time for public comment to three minutes per person “is an attempt to silence the people who employ everyone at the school district,” said Rich Jenson, Colfax school district resident, during the visitors portion of the Colfax Board of Education’s July 12 meeting.
The change in policy was made after the May meeting, Jenson noted.
About 15 people attended the July 12 meeting.
More than 50 people attended the school board’s May 17 meeting, and of the 13 who spoke during the public comments portion of the meeting, nine were in favor of making masks optional.
Last August, the Board of Education approved the “back-to-school” plan for five-day per week in-person instruction in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The back-to-school plan required everyone in the school buildings to wear a mask to help control the spread of the virus.
Those who spoke at the May meeting were given a five-minute time limit, although several of them went over the time limit by a minute or so.
The Colfax school board’s public comment policy already limited the total time for comments to 20 minutes at the May meeting, but the school board did not stop the comments after 20 minutes, and people attending the meeting were allowed to speak for more than an hour
During the June meeting, the Colfax Board of Education approved an update to the policy on school board meetings and public comments with changes recommended by NEOLA, the school district’s consulting firm on policies.
One of the changes was to limit public comments at school board meeting to three minutes per person instead of five minutes.
The school district policy (0167.3) on public comments at board meetings has always stated that the public comment section of the meeting is limited to 20 minutes, unless the board votes to extend the time period, noted William C. Yingst Jr., district administrator, in a follow-up e-mail message to the Colfax Messenger.
The change from five minutes to three minutes allows more people to speak during the 20-minute time period, Yingst wrote, and also noted that, to date, the Board of Education has not limited the visitor portion of the meeting.
While some governmental bodies identify the public comments portion of the agenda as public comments, the Colfax school board agenda lists the public comments section as “visitors.”
A three-minute public comment time limit is common among county boards, village boards and town boards.
During the public comments portion of the Dunn County Board meetings, a revolving red light and a timer alerts speakers when their three minutes are up.
More not less
Elected officials are elected by the taxpayers, and the Board of Education, as elected officials, should hear more public comment rather than less because everyone employs the people at the school district, Jenson said at the July 12 meeting.
Speaking to a board directly is the most basic form of citizen participation, he said.
Denise Solberg, who also spoke during the public comments portion of the meeting, agreed with Jenson.
Allowing people to speak for three minutes and then setting the total public comments period to 20 minutes allows only six people to speak at meeting out of all of the people who live in the school district and who voted in the last school board election, she said.
With only a small number of people speaking, the school board will not have a good representation of what people think, and the board must listen to people in the district, Solberg said.
Under the state’s Open Meetings Law, boards are not required to allow public comment.
According to the “Wisconsin Open Meetings Law Compliance Guide” issued by the state attorney general in May of 2019, “In general, the open meetings law grants citizens the right to attend and observe open session meetings of governmental bodies, but does not require a governmental body to allow members of the public to speak or actively participate in the body’s meeting.”
The Compliance Guide goes on to say, “There are some other state statutes that require governmental bodies to hold public hearings on specified matters. Unless such a statute specifically applies, however, a governmental body is free to determine for itself whether and to what extent it will allow citizen participation at its meetings.”
The Compliance Guide also notes that if a governmental body allows public comment, the public comment period must be included in the meeting notice.
“During such a period, the body may receive information from the public and may discuss any matter raised by the public. If a member of the public raises a subject that does not appear on the meeting notice, however, it is advisable to limit the discussion of that subject and to defer any extensive deliberation to a later meeting for which more specific notice can be given. In addition, the body may not take formal action on a subject raised in the public comment period, unless that subject is also identified in the meeting notice,” the Compliance Guide states.
After the regular school board meeting adjourned but before the school board went into executive session, one person attending the meeting asked where the notification had been posted about the school board meeting.
State law requires meeting notifications with agendas to be posted in three public places, or posted on a governmental body’s website and posted in one public place, or published in a newspaper.
Meeting notices with agendas must be published or posted at least 24 hours before the meeting, although in an emergency situation, the meeting notice can be posted not less than two hours before the meeting.
The Colfax school board’s meeting notices are posted at the school district, at the Colfax Public Library and at the Colfax post office, Yingst said.
The Colfax school board also publishes the meeting notices and agendas in the Colfax Messenger the week before the school board meeting.
In addition, the date and the time of the school board meeting is included on the school district’s website.
In other business, the Colfax Board of Education:
• Approved updated sports practice attire fees that include a $1 increase for a baseball cap to $16; $2 decreases for boys’ basketball jerseys to $28 and for shorts to $15; a $2 decrease for boys’ cross country jerseys to $18 and a $3 decrease for shorts to $15; and an increase of $2 for cross country girls’ shorts to $20. The other fees will remain the same. The fees are based on vendor pricing, Yingst said.
• Authorized spending money from available funds as needed to meet the immediate expenses of operating and maintaining the public instruction of the school district.
• Approved the following transfers: Dianna Dachel from middle school teacher to fourth grade teacher; Julia Hydukovich from fourth grade teacher to sixth grade teacher; Kayla Wuollet from cook to teacher’s aide.
• Approved hiring Nicholas Heit as a fourth grade teacher and hiring Nicole Shane as a fourth grade teacher. Heit is originally from Elk Mound and earned a bachelor’s degree from Winona State University. Shane earned a master’s degree from Viterbo University, an undergraduate degree from UW-Platteville, and most recently served as a principal at St. Joseph Elementary.
• Approved the following fall coaching staff: High school football — head coach, Matt De Moe; assistant coaches Chad Evenson, Gideon St. Aubin and Joe Beranek. High school volleyball — head coach, Pam Meredith; junior varsity coach, Kari Sedivy; (freshmen coach, to be determined). High school cross country — head coach, Joseph Doucette; assistant coach, Chuck Brown. Middle school football — coaches, Kirk Secraw and Carly Kittilson. Middle school cross country — coach, Courtney Sarauer. Girls’ golf — coach, Ryan Krall. School board members wondered whether one coach was enough for middle school cross country. John Dachel, high school principal, said the middle school cross country team practices with the high school cross country team.
• Approved academic standards that are in effect for the 2021-2022 school year, pursuant to section 120.12(13) and section 118.30(1g)(a) of the Wisconsin state statutes.
• Approved The Standard as the long-term and short-term disability insurance carrier for the 2021-2022 school year. The school district has been contracting with The Standard for the last four or five years, and the company has served the school district well, Yingst said, noting the short-term and long-term disability insurance is a good benefit for school district employees. There is no increase in the premium. The insurance is not used very often, and only two people have used it in the last 20 years, he said.
• Approved the athletic code, which had no changes and only one update from the WIAA.