Harwood Unified Union School District (HUUSD) Board members may not restrict the content of public comment but may set restrictions on time allotted on each comment.
After a contentious discussion about the time restriction to public comment during HUUSD Board meetings, board members addressed the tone of the public comment about the board and their work at the last meeting.
Before board chair Caitlin Hollister called to order the June 12 HUUSD meeting, she reiterated the three-minute limitation rule for public comment, after the school board’s last public comment portion ended with the echo of slammed doors.
Hollister offered that community members may write to the board to share or express thoughts or come back for a second public comment portion during the next meeting. Hollister acknowledged that the three-minute marking may feel formal or awkward with the limitation but said the board gives each community member the same amount of time.
In the past, board members have extended comment time for individual comments if there was no one else signed up to speak. During the school board’s June 5 meeting, a single community member who signed up for public comment was granted additional time to share his thoughts and was cut off after five minutes. Not finishing his thoughts, he abruptly left the board room complaining about the board’s public comment procedure.
During the June 12 public comment portion, Brian Fleisher, Waitsfield, did not agree with Hollister’s opening remark. Fleisher said the board was disrespectful to the individual who spoke the week prior. The board had added time onto the individual’s time and after, cut the individual off. Fleisher said it was rude, especially because the individual was an educator himself and a past board member.
Fleisher said there was no reason to have a three-minute time limit and called the idea arbitrary. The board allots 15 minutes at the start of each meeting for public comment and the full time is rarely used. Fleisher suggested letting the public use the full time, even if there are a few participants. Fleisher commented that board members are not timed during their rants in conversations so they don’t know what it’s like to have a hard stop right in the middle of discussion.
"Somehow this meeting has become a place where people feel like they can come and yell and scream and carry on and act incredibly poorly and, frankly, I don’t know I've had the experience as an adult watching other adults behave so poorly. The expectation that we as a group of 14 volunteers here, we're legally obligated to sit here and listen. We are not legally obligated to sit here and agree with everything that’s said, appreciate the abuse, thank people for the abuse, or respond positively to future commentary from people who have treated us poorly. That’s not how humanity works. So while I’m certainly willing as an elected official to sit here and obey the law by listening to anybody who wants to show up and yell at us, the expectation that I'm going to respond happily to that treatment is just insane," said Waterbury board member James Grace.
Laura Schaller, a Moretown resident, expressed her concern for the lack of opportunity for community feedback. Schaller looked at the board timeline of engagement, workshops and timeline for deciding on scenarios and saw there were only two time slots for community feedback from May to November.
Skip Rogers, Moretown, wrote a letter to the board, which was read by Moretown representative Gabe Gilman, thanking the board for hosting community engagement workshops. Rogers suggested hosting more where community members could pick their own ideal district configuration scenarios.
Other public speakers attending the meeting included Becky Allen, a Harwood mathematics teacher. Allen was there to represent the Harwood Union Learning Association. Allen said teachers should have a representative at the board meetings and be proactive. Prior to the board meeting, the association invited Superintendent Brigid Nease and director of finance and operations Michelle Baker to their meetings.
Allen had a letter with fellow staff members’ signatures regarding statewide health care negotiations. Allen said that there is to be an 11.8 percent rise in their premium, and gave an example of a teacher on a family plan that would have to pay an extra $500 a year. Support staff could expect to pay an additional $300 more a year. This increase is before the statewide increase in health care contracts. Allen said the association hopes the school board stands up for the teachers.