HAMBURG — In recent years, public expression sessions in the Hamburg School District have been contentious, argumentative and in many cases, confrontational. At the July 1 reorganization meeting, the school board attempted to take steps toward establishing some regimented order for these sessions, while proposing tweaks to the Public Expression Conduct policy.
New Board Member Cameron Hall, whose first meeting as a board member took place on July 1, had helped formulate some ideas for the policy. One such proposed revision includes taking out references to “threatening and physical violations” that extend beyond verbal remarks, with an addition of citing that Hamburg police will be called for matters regarded as serious in nature. It was added that such policy statements would be given to anyone who signs up for public comment session, prior to the start of the meeting.
“We expect civility to be in accordance with the [proposed] document,” Hall said of the policy suggestions. “The intention is that you’re an example for students in the audience.”
The public comment session had taken place at the beginning of the meeting in Hamburg, before it was moved to the end, following a long stretch of speakers bringing contentious and sometimes legal-oriented matters to public discussion. Other speakers had addressed board members or district officials by name in delivering certain messages. Sometimes, mainstream topics such as proposed budget cuts or extracurricular initiatives were discussed, as well.
Board Member Sally Stephenson had previously engaged in back-and-forth exchanges with speakers, during public comment session. Some of the proposed policy changes include wording that prohibits board members from responding to speakers’ statements. Stephenson did state that district officials had responded, in part, to concerned residents regarding an issue with a parking lot on North Street, a scenario in which a remedy was presented to the citizens and the problem was averted.
“It’s important that [board members or audience members] not be marginalized or ignored,” said Stephenson, who added, “I’ve been the victim of verbal attacks by some members of the community. It’s important to stop verbal attacks on board members. Half of the audience had left [after hearing comments during the public comment session], so we had to move public discussion to the end of the meeting.”
Board Member Catherine Schrauth Forcucci, often a target of and participant in public comment sessions in the past, is currently in hearings associated with the board’s attempted removal of her, on grounds of official misconduct charges. At the reorganization meeting, she asked that the board put the proposed revisions to the public comment policy on hold.
“[Public comment] is a hot-button topic right now,” said Schrauth Forcucci. “I see a lack of behavior we’d like to see, empathy and use of more people skills. Where’s our diplomacy?”
Hall later stated that district officials could soften the proposed wording of the policy to include that it is preferred that board of education members “generally not” respond to public comment speakers’ statements. Board Vice President Thomas Flynn said that avoiding back-and-forth commentary with audience members is preferable.
“At times, people bring up controversial topics,” Flynn said, of the session. “Putting any language [in the policy] with gray areas will have us going down an area that we don’t want to go.”
Board President David Yoviene suggested the board come back with further policy revisions for its Aug. 12 meeting.
Tuesday’s meeting started at about 8:30 p.m., a full hour after it was expected to begin. District Superintendent Dr. Richard Jetter apologized to those in attendance for the delay.
On Monday, June 30, the second public hearing, regarding Schrauth Forucci’s alleged official misconduct had taken place, also at Armor Elementary School. That hearing included more testimony outlining Schrauth Forcucci’s alleged outbursts and misbehavior toward district officials, including Jetter. Another public hearing regarding Schrauth Forucci’s conduct was scheduled to take place July 2.
Lumsden & McCormick LLP of Buffalo will conduct an external audit of the district, starting in mid-August. Sara Dayton presented an outline of items expected to be reviewed, including required net pension liability recorded, along with monies owed to the New York state retirement system. An opinion will also be issued on financial statements, as well as a test on the main transaction cycle.
As part of the board’s reorganization meeting, Yoviene was again elected as board president for the 2014-15 year, while Flynn was named board vice president.
The next regular meeting of the Hamburg Central School Board will take place August 12 at the Armor Elementary Cafeteria.