Two weeks ago, AIM parents, angry and frustrated by decisions made by the district – and perhaps with the poor communication by the administration regarding the placement of the AIM program, its removal from North Davis Elementary and its reduction to two classrooms – came to the board meeting and vented their anger and frustration.
The parents opposing the changes to policy greatly outnumbered the handful or so commenters who spoke out in support of those changes. At times, those parents would break out in applause and at least on one occasion they heckled and interrupted an oppositional speaker.
The board, not intimidated by these numbers, stuck to their guns and voted 3-2 to keep the changes in place.
All of this is background for what took place on Thursday evening as Susan Lovenburg, following public comment, read to the board a prepared comment.
She said that she wanted to engage her colleagues and that she was doing it at this time because it related to the public comment at the previous board meeting. “It’s specifically the issue of the applause that interrupted the proceedings multiple times at the last meeting,” she said. “It’s really hard to address that issue at the heat of the moment, I think it just escalates the tension that was already in the room – but I really do just want to circle back and have a conversation with all of you.”
“Over the years we’ve taken different stances on applause in chambers – there have been presidents who didn’t allow it at all. There have been those who have allowed something in between and myself I’m pretty tolerant of it,” she said.
She noted that when everyone is applauding the same thing for student performances or for honoring teachers and other district employees, it seems quite appropriate. “I just felt like it crossed the line at our April 21 meeting where it was actually used to really bolster one perspective and suppress another perspective to the point where one of our public members was heckled when they had a different point of view than expressed by the multitude of the people in the room.”
She mentioned there is board policy for handling public comment, “I just think we as a board that supports a democratic forum where all opinions should be respected – I would just like to see if we have some interest in establishing a bit more of a protocol around applause than we really permitted at the last meeting.”
Barbara Archer said, “I did get feedback from a number of community members that they felt intimidated to make public comment because of the applause for one perspective.” She added, “Watching meetings over the last ten years, I think it’s been more respectful when you want to show your support for someone who makes public comment to do the jazz-hands (she waived her hands in the air) as we call them. So that’s an option.”
“I think it got a little out of control on the 21st, our goal is to have people feel like no matter what their opinion is… this is a safe place to express it,” she said. “We could go back to jazz-hands.”
Tom Adams said, “It was really disconcerting and this wasn’t the only meeting – it’s when people try to shout down and interrupt someone making public comment. To me we provide this forum and I believe that … first of all, it’s always hard for people to come to a public meeting. Second, it’s doubly hard for someone to approach the podium and actually make a comment.”
“For me, I really want them to feel safe and comfortable in making that. The fact that someone would try to interrupt someone to me is not what we’re about as a town, as a community, and our school system,” he said. “We want to model the behavior that our students should have and we should make sure that we have reasoned debate. It’s okay to have different opinions but when you have been given three minutes to talk, and that’s the only shot you get, then you should feel like you won’t be interrupted or that you have to deal with applause and any other thing that might keep you from making your point.”
Alan Fernandes noted that when he was president in 2015, he managed the meetings and allowed applause. “I’m not generally offended by applause – I think it’s okay to have it – it certainly speaks to emotion and I’m not afraid of that,” he said.
He added that “having said that, I certainly agree with the perspective that’s being articulated here.”
Mr. Fernandes said that the issue has always been the prerogative of the chair to make that call “and I support that protocol.” Looking at the public comment protocol listed in the agenda, he thought it might be reasonable to add a sentence about applause and asking for people “to be respectful of different viewpoints.”
He noted that Madhavi Sunder, as president, actually reads the paragraph aloud to the public prior to public comment.
Alan Fernandes called it “a balancing act” and believed that if the applause means that some perspectives are not heard, they may want to reconsider the protocol.
Tom Adams reiterated, “What I have no tolerance for is someone interrupting someone while making public comment or trying to shout them down. I think we should have no tolerance for that.”
Susan Lovenburg said, “It is the president’s prerogative to run the meeting, the board can set protocols.”
Madhavi Sunder said they can look into changing language of the protocols for public comment if there is interest on the part of the board.
She also said, “I do want to note that at that particular meeting there were a lot of parents who probably had never been in a board meeting before, they aren’t familiar with the blue card and the typical protocols and they’re parents of young elementary school kids. I think it’s also important to be respectful of the fact that these are new processes and that’s why it’s good policy to read this out loud.”
However, the current language has no guidelines on applause and that can be changed, Ms. Sunder stated.
In my view, the issue of applause is separate and distinct from the issue of heckling. The fact that the people who brought up this issue were on the opposite side of the fence from the bulk of the commenters and that they raised the issue of applause concurrent with the incident of heckling should at least be noted.
In my review of the video from that meeting, the heckling incident was a single incident. It occurred at 2:43:30 on the video from April 21 and the public commenter was speaking when someone behind her said something that was not intelligible on the video.
What the board members failed to note is that Ms. Sunder immediately stated, “Let the speaker finish, please,” and gave her extra time to speak.
So the one incident had nothing to do with applause, it was handled appropriately by the president, and none of the board members noted that at the meeting on Thursday.
On the issue of applause, I remember, during a heated exchange at one of the early school board meetings, Don Saylor lectured the audience that this was not a sporting event where the audience cheers on their team and boos the opposition. And, while at the time it was condescending at best, I have come to largely support that position.
In fact, the school board for years encouraged during the meeting that people not applaud (because it causes the mics to cut out, as well) but rather do the jazz hands. The city council, while not encouraging jazz hands, has largely discouraged applause except in honoring people for awards.
That said, in the last few years that has changed. When Dan Wolk became mayor, he began allowing applause. And, as noted, both Alan Fernandes and Madhavi Sunder have allowed applause.
Personally, I think it is better to do away with applause and, if said respectfully to audience, you can raise the issue during the meeting. Sheila Allen in particular, was good at encouraging the audience to use jazz hands while remaining respectful.
Finally, I think that Madhavi Sunder is correct here – the board is experienced in dealing with interactions with the public. But parents – many of whom come when something is going wrong – are often coming for the first time.
I think gentle reminders are the way to go here. I think having formal policies prohibiting applause are a bit overkill. Rather, I would suggest a simple line encouraging people to be respectful of all opinions and refraining from auditory applause.
—David M. Greenwald reporting