At last week’s Harwood Unified Union School District (HUUSD) meeting the board was asked a critical question about how the board would engage with the public going forward.

The question came from Jared Cadwell, chair of the Fayston Select Board. Cadwell reminded the board of the commitments to public participation that were made in the run up to the Act 46 merger.

The question is critically important and deserves careful, thoughtful consideration and an answer. Public participation in the democratic process is essential. Given the difficult process of joining seven school boards into one, public participation is even more important.

In addition to its budgeting work, which is tricky and difficult, the HUUSD is working on implementation of proficiency-based learning, student-teacher ratios and the potential reconfiguration of the school district, for example, sending all fifth- and sixth-graders in the district to one school.

The public needs a way to engage with its elected representatives charged with making these decisions. Public comment should be sought, listened to and taken into consideration in decision making.

Recall the process this summer when the Waitsfield Conservation Commission brought forth a plan for a trial knotweed management program on a town-owned parcel of land along the Mad River. That plan involved the use of an herbicide and it engendered a lot of public concern, which both the select board and conservation commission received via multiple public hearings and a forum. That public input was critical to the town’s decision making.

Our select boards have a well-established method of taking public comment at a specified time during regular meetings AND also allowing the public to comment during meetings as well. It is sometimes clumsy, but it works. It’s a balancing act.

Understood that the constituency of our select boards is smaller than that of the HUUSD Board and that school and select boards need to set agendas and work through them in a timely fashion. But public participation in the process is critical and should be sought after, fostered and respected. The public should be viewed as partners in the process.