Park City Board of Education nixes live public comment portion of May meeting (updated)

Written comments were still accepted

The Park City Board of Education did not include a public comment item on its May meeting agenda, though the board president said it would return next month.
Park Record file photo

Update: Park City Board of Education President Erin Grady on Friday morning said public comment would return to the agenda for the board’s June meeting. “I plan on having the meeting being identical to last year,” Grady said. “I am happy to have public comment in June.”

Months before the Park City Board of Education is expected to ask voters for tens of millions of dollars for school improvements, the board scrapped the public comment portion of its May meeting, and has not committed to a timeframe for restoring the long-standing opportunity for residents to provide input.

The board is now one of the only local elected bodies that does not have a standing invitation for constituents to voice their concerns.

Erin Grady, the president of the board, said it is not the board’s intention to forbid members of the public from weighing in on topics, and that the board still accepts written comments sent before meetings.

“We as a board want to always have public comment,” she said. “There are just some times when we have a lot of business that we need to attend to and get done. We had an agenda that had a lot of information coming at us about master planning, about the budgets. Just to stay focused, we chose to have a business meeting and allow people to submit public comment. That doesn’t mean public comment is gone, and it will be back.”

The district is one of the largest local taxing agencies and its board oversees an operating budget of nearly $90 million. The board generally holds a public meeting once per month; Tuesday’s meeting lasted about 90 minutes.

It is common practice for governmental meetings to include an agenda item for members of the public to comment about topics they would like to bring to officials’ attention, though the practice does not appear to be required by law.

It is distinct from public hearings, which are required for certain items, like approving budgets or tax hikes or certain land-use permits.

Grady didn’t commit to public comment returning for the board’s June meeting, which is scheduled to include a budget hearing, or the August meeting, in which officials are expected to discuss a tax increase, which would require a public hearing.

Public hearings invite comment on a specific agenda item, like a proposed budget, and limit discussion to that topic. Public comment periods often allow wide latitude for speakers to comment about various topics, including ones that aren’t on that evening’s agenda.

Park City Superintendent Jill Gildea indicated the public comment portion of meetings might return in September.

In recent months, anti-mask and anti-vaccine contingents have spoken at board meetings, as has a steady stream of people who disagree with the way the board has handled the pandemic, including teachers and teacher representatives who advocated for schools to move to remote learning when the pandemic was at its peak.

Grady said the sometimes-adversarial nature of the public comment portion of meetings did not play a role in the board scrapping it.

Nearly every elected body in Summit County accepts verbal public comment at meetings.

The Summit County Council, for example, has a standing appointment at 6 p.m. during its meetings, with the council chair occasionally stopping the discussion among the elected officials to invite comment from the public.

According to a review of agendas, public comment is accepted by the North Summit and South Summit boards of education; both Summit County planning commissions; and the city or town councils of Park City, Oakley, Kamas, Francis and Henefer.

Coalville Mayor Trever Johnson said it isn’t a standing agenda item there, but that members of the public can ask to address an item of concern with council, which can then be placed on the agenda.

Megan McKenna, a Park City High School teacher who has frequently made public comments, said it’s been increasingly hard to participate in Board of Education meetings this year.

“I think it’s a really important part of the process that the public be informed of other people’s concerns, whether it’s a teacher, a parent or a taxpayer in the community. I think it’s important that we have a forum that we can be heard,” she said. “It felt like they’ve been moving in this direction with new guidelines and limitations, and then altogether removing that portion of the meeting, it did feel like the public was being taken out of this meeting in the school board business and our input was no longer valued.”

The board has been convening in person throughout much of the pandemic and broadcasting the meetings, with the first fully remote meeting held on Tuesday. Board members convened on Zoom and the meeting was broadcast over YouTube.

Previous recordings and virtual meetings have been marred by garbled sound and unavailable video, making it difficult to follow along without attending in person.

McKenna said the board required anyone interested in commenting at previous meetings to attend in person.

Before doing away with the public comment portion of meetings, the district published guidelines that restricted comments to items that are included on that meeting’s agenda, among other provisions.

“The public comment portion of the meeting should relate to district matters and agenda items versus as a platform for a personal or political statement. This is not the place to address a personnel matter or a complaint,” the guidelines state.

The district’s website says that a board meeting is “not a forum for open discussion or debate between the Board and patrons.”

Gildea seemed to indicate that some of the concerns raised during public comment were not appropriate to be heard at a Board of Education meeting.

“The role of elected board member is one that maintains vision for the future and a ‘30,000 foot view’ of the overall system, assuring compliance with the Utah regulations, and addressing policy. Administrators work with day-to-day operational, personnel, and educational decisions,” Gildea wrote in an email to The Park Record.

She said that comments submitted to the board before meetings would be attached to the formal minutes of a meeting.

McKenna said that including comments in written copies of minutes might blunt their ability to affect change.

“I don’t think very many people look back at previous meetings and read public comments,” she said. “I think the whole point is to voice your concerns to the public and to hold the school district accountable. And so if (your comments are) not read aloud, nobody knows what other concerns are out there, and I feel like it doesn’t hold the district accountable to the community and the board.”

Grady pushed back on the notion that removing the verbal comment period was the same as removing the public’s ability to comment.

“We will definitely have plenty of opportunities for the public to communicate with us, and we can do that in a bunch of different forums,” Grady said. “From here on out you should always see public comment. It’s not going to go away.”

She said that does not mean the board would necessarily hear public comment at its June meeting.

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