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SIOUX CITY -- Publicly asked, but not publicly answered.

At a Sioux City School Board meeting on Jan. 28, district watchdog Dan Greenwell weighed in on agenda topics three times, and then also raised two issues to the board members and school administration during the portion of the meeting reserved for public comment.

As is the board practice, that segment was kicked off by the board president saying no board members or administrators would respond to citizen's questions or comments.

"You know the drill, we are not able to respond or engage in discussion on items in this portion of the agenda," Board President Jeremy Saint told  Greenwell.

Each citizen is given up to 5 minutes to speak, with a clock projected on a screen counting down the time. 

Greenwell raised concerns on how North High School volunteer groups had not received funds by Nov. 1 for working in concession stands and about the travel times that some students spend between buildings, which he contended means lost instructional time.

Greenwell said there is no doubt those two topics involved "questions that deserved answers," but he still has not heard back from the district.

So the upshot is that while people may be heard asking questions of concern to themselves, and possibly others, at the public meetings, school board members have no set process by which they can publicly answer the inquiries. In Greenwell's opinion, that represents a problem.

In an email to the Journal, Saint explained the basis for board members not answering to questions during public comment.

"We generally do not engage in discussions on non-agenda items because of Iowa’s Open Meetings law. Basically, we cannot take action on any item for which we haven’t given prior public notice," Saint said.

The Iowa Public Information Board summary of Chapters 21 and 22 of the Iowa code says, "Government bodies are not required to allow public comment at open meetings, though many do, and they are allowed to enforce reasonable rules to ensure meetings are orderly." However, nothing in the law precludes elected officials from responding to public comments.

Greenwell, a frequent district critic who unsuccessfully ran for a school board seat in 2015, said a better practice would be to have issues raised in a public comment portion be answered publicly by board members or administrators, even if it's not possible to do so until their next meeting.

"They should follow up with responses on valid questions that were asked and not have to make a (Freedom of Information Act) request to get an answer," Greenwell said. "Their tactic now is not to respond to any question, even on the published agenda items. This is not how an open, public meeting is supposed to function. It clearly demonstrates non-accountability to the taxpayers.”

Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, on Thursday said the school board should respond to public forum questions in a way "that is publicly accessible as well." Evans said that could come either in a subsequent meeting or with information posted on the school district website.

"There needs to be some sort of mechanism, so that the citizens aren't just going away from meetings in frustration," Evans said.

"There is an obligation to respond after the fact...That is the important two-way street on which government exists."

Sioux City school board member David Gleiser said Tuesday he agrees that questions posed in the public forum portion should be given an answer in  a set part of a following board meeting.

"It is something I've asked Jeremy about too. I want to know the responses to those questions as well," Gleiser said.

Saint said the issue isn't so cut-and-dried.

"We generally try to have someone follow up with citizens who raise concerns during the public comment portion of a meeting and get answers for them or address the concerns that they have raised," Saint said.

"While under some circumstances a concern raised might require board discussion or action at a future meeting, frequently, the most effective means of addressing questions is simply to follow up with the person by e-mail or phone or in-person after the meeting."

END OF THE AGENDA

Almost a year ago, the school board changed the timing for public comments at its meetings. For at least eight years, citizens were allowed to speak at the beginning of the meeting. Now, they must wait until the last agenda item.

For meetings that begin at 6 p.m. on a school night, sometimes that means the public comment portion doesn't come until around 8 p.m. or even later.

Especially if district patrons sit through a long meeting for the forum at the end to weigh in on a topic, "common courtesy would say that person should get a response," Evans said.

The board adopted the change in June 2018. School board leaders said it still gives people ample opportunity to weigh in on subjects of their choice. They also note it matches the practice of Sioux City Council meetings, which also waits to take public comments until all other agenda items are completed.

The Woodbury County Board of Supervisors, about three years ago, switched to having public comment options at both the beginning and end of its weekly meetings.

Saint said the 2018 change was approved by the school board after deliberations by the district's Policy Review Committee. He said board member Perla Alarcon-Flory asked about moving the citizen concerns to the end of the meeting, largely because several people were speaking early about items that were on the agenda later in the meeting. Saint said many people then left the meeting before the board actually took up the agenda item for a fuller, planned discussion.

Gleiser said having the public forum at the end of the meeting works well. Saint also said the final placement remains fine, as "we have been able to get to the board business that everyone has reviewed and prepared for earlier in the meetings while it is more fresh on our minds."

When Greenwell used his five minutes in the January public forum, he said some community groups who have worked concession stands have received less money than in recent years, and he worried that no money from November had been returned to a North group with which he is affiliated.

"I would ask that we get on the stick and get it done for these organizations. They are trying to do good for our students," Greenwell said.

On the second topic that night, Greenwell said his son is among many students who spend unproductive time traveling to another building for specialty instruction by a teacher.

"You need to figure out a different plan for these teachers to come to these schools or something...I think the board should address the situation," he asserted.

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