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Jeffco school board defends change in format for public comments

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By Gabrielle Porter

A recent, seemingly minor change in the way the school district handles public comments at school board meetings has helped the board become more efficient, board president Lesley Dahlkemper says.

However, a longtime board critic contends the change discourages community involvement.

In August, the school board began allowing only public comments that pertain to that day’s agenda at the beginning of the meeting. General public comment is still allowed, but not until nearly the end of the meeting.

In the past, all public comment was heard at the beginning of the meeting.

“One of the main areas of focus for the board over the last year was really to improve our overall effectiveness,” Dahlkemper said. “As a board member, I wanted to make sure I spent my time in the right place. … We wanted to run more effective, efficient board meetings that are focused on what matters most.”

Dahlkemper said the format change was intended to streamline meetings by allowing people to comment on issues directly before board members discuss — and sometimes vote on — those same issues.

“That way the decisions we make during the board meeting are informed by citizens’ input,” Dahlkemper said. “Non-agenda-related items are important too, but they are tackled a little later in the meeting.”

Dahlkemper said the current board prioritizes community engagement, and public comment is not the only format for that. The board decided at its Dec. 13 meeting to set aside two days in January to discuss how to ramp up its community engagement — possibly through more town-hall-style meetings — in 2013.

‘A complete and total deterrent’

Former Jeffco resident Regan Benson, who has been critical of the board, said she sees the format change as a deliberate attempt to quash community involvement.

“It’s a complete and total deterrent because no one knows what time that second piece of public comment will be,” Benson said. “A lot of those people are elderly that had spoken before they changed the format. Those people, they don’t stay anymore.”

Benson, who now lives in Akron, Colo., is not allowed to speak at meetings unless she gets written approval. Board policy dating to 1997 mandates that non-Jeffco residents must have approval from the superintendent or school board before speaking during the public-comment segment of a meeting. 

She says her family’s displeasure with Jeffco Public Schools prompted the move to Akron. After moving, she asked permission to speak at a board meeting in September but was denied in an e-mail from district Superintendent Cindy Stevenson. 

“The format needs to go back to the way it was, and everyone and anyone who wishes to address that board as a resident of the United States of America needs to be allowed to speak,” Benson said.  

More focus

Dahlkemper declined to comment on Benson’s accusations but did say she thinks the format change has allowed the board to become more efficient. She said she has not personally received any complaints from constituents about the format change, and she feels that board meetings in recent months have had more in-depth discussions.

“I think the conversations have been much richer,” she said. “I think it’s working well, and I think that down the road, we’ll come back and revisit it. I don’t think there’s just one way of doing it.”

Contact Gaby Zastrocky at gabrielle@evergreenco.com. or follow at Twitter.com/gabriellereport. Check www.ColumbineCourier.com for updates.