By STACY MILLBERG - For the Star Beacon
An uptick in public attendance has prompted the Jefferson Area Local Board of Education to review its policy on public recognition during its meetings.
School Board President Patricia Hoyson said the board has become lax in its policy over the last few months.
“The board recognizes the value of public comment on educational issues,” she said. “While the meetings are held in public, these are not public meetings.”
In the past, the meetings consisted of two periods of public recognition, one at the beginning of the meeting for discussion of agenda items, and one at the end of the meeting for items to research for future discussion.
Tuesday, the board decided to combine those two periods into one 30-minute public recognition period, at the beginning of each meeting, to discuss agenda items as well as items to research for future discussion.
“The policy allows for a public recognition period of 30 minutes,” Hoyson said.
The policy also limits each person to speak for five minutes. Beginning at next month’s meeting, Hoyson said, the board will ask those planning on speaking at the meeting to register their intent at the beginning of the meeting by filling out an index card with their name and topic they wish to discuss.
Hoyson also said the public recognition period is not intended as a question-and-answer period. She said individuals may make a public statement to the board, however the public portion is not for making personal attacks on people or questioning particular members of the board.
“This is a business board of education meeting that is held in public,” she said.
Last April, the district cut 39 positions, including 21 teachers. Since that time, meeting attendance has been on the rise, Superintendent Doug Hladek said.
The increased attendance is due, in part, to the formation of a local citizens group, known as Jefferson Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, when the district put up a new 11.9 mill levy in August, Hladek said.
The group has maintained its presence and continued to urge the board to look into other avenues to cut costs, including privatized busing, he said.
“We have been very liberal in engaging the audience,” Hladek said. “Lately the group has been more vocal and wanting a question and answer period.”
Some 15 people addressed the board at Tuesday’s meeting, including members of the citizens group as well as teachers.
Mary Hostetler, a teacher in the district, said she has spent her entire life in the school district, as a parent, former board member and now a teacher. She said she has had various jobs over the years and teaching is by far the hardest.
“No one goes into teaching to get rich,” Hostetler said.
She said it is harder than ever to be a teacher, especially now, having to compete with video games and social media for a student’s attention.
Hostetler accused the members of the citizens group of hating the teachers, having malicious intent and working to destroy the schools by encouraging people to vote down the levies.
Esther Gillespie, a member of the group, said the group is there to work with the board to solve the financial issues of the district.
“We are making the board accountable,” she said. “After all these years, no one has ever questioned the board.”
Gillespie said she just wants to know where her money is going.
“All we want is answers,” she said. “We had nothing to do with the levies and we are tired of being accused of doing all these things. Let us work with you.”
John Ginnard said, contrary to the belief of Hostetler, members of the citizens group are not the villains.
“We just need to be more fiscally responsible for the district,” he said. “We’re here to find out why excess money is being spent for frivolous items. Superintendent Hladek has said the district is in a state of fiscal emergency.”
Ginnard questioned why money is being spent on things like lunches, flowers and limousine rentals.
“We will not support a school board that will not take the superintendent to task for what he is spending,” he said.
Ginnard said the group also is disappointed in the board’s attempt to keep people from speaking at meetings.
“Somewhere along the line, Dr. Hoyson has come to the conclusion that she can stifle our group by trying to mute us,” he said. “We will not go down without a fight.”
Like many districts, Jefferson has been impacted by the loss of state funding, Hladek said.
“We had to reduce $1.5 million in our budget this school year, $750,000 last year and we are looking to reduce another $1 million in the coming school year,” Hladek said. “We are a product of the times.”
Hladek said the passage of the 11.9-mill levy would have averted the $1.5 million budget reduction as well as the $1 million budget reduction anticipated for the 2013-2014 school year. Earlier this month, voters also rejected the renewal of two five-year operating levies.
“That will impact the amount we have going forward,” he said.
Hladek said the board will be looking at different plans for the district’s future including a five-year plan and ways we can curtail spending.
The board may also consider putting the renewal levy back on the ballot in May as well as hosting community engagement meetings to involve the public in deciding whether to put a new levy on the ballot again.
Hladek said the district is operating this year with reduced staff, which means larger classrooms.
“It’s more than we’ve had before,” he said. “I’m not sure what the long-term effects will be.”
The board will meet in regular session next month on Dec. 17 at 6 p.m. in the high school library.