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Policy Committee looks at committee, special meeting changes

The Policy Review Committee will recommend the elimination of two School Board committees and adjusting the role of another.

It also began discussions on whether to adjust how special board meetings can be called.

School Board Attorney Wendell Waller presented his recommendations to the committee — made up of board chairwoman Phyllis Byrum and vice-chairwoman Dr. Judith Brooks-Buck — during its Sept. 29 meeting.

The Pupil Personnel Committee would be removed as a School Board committee in favor of a Student Services Review Committee, which Waller said would be an administrative committee of the board whose members would be appointed by the superintendent to review decisions made by the Suffolk Public Schools’ discipline officer.

The members of the review committee would be made up of administrators from different schools and the school administrative office. “Certain decisions, mainly expulsion decisions,” Waller said, could be appealed to the full School Board.

Waller said the new committee would also hear out-of-zone placement requests. He cited other, unnamed school divisions who have a similar committee set up. Expulsion decisions would still come to the full board, he said.

“The way that this is envisioned is that there will be a pool of people that could serve on this committee,” Waller said, “and depending on whether it’s a high school student, or whether it’s a middle school student, or an elementary student, the people will probably be pulled from those building levels so they would have some understanding of what’s happening in the field when they’re getting these cases on appeal.”

He said it could lead to consistency in terms of decision-making and policy application. No one, however, would be able to participate in the process if the case affects their particular school.

Brooks-Buck said it needs to be made clear why the changes are being made, saying there is confusion on parent and student privacy rights on the details of their cases.

“That’s why we’re looking at doing this differently,” Brooks-Buck said. “And I think that’s something that needs to be made clear with regard to changing this particular thing, because I don’t want there to be questions along the lines of why we’re doing this or what our motives are.”

Said Waller: “There’s always a concern about trying to balance the public’s right to access meetings of this nature versus student rights, and student privacy rights,” adding that “if these meetings are open to the public, anyone from the public could then come in and actually see what students are being disciplined, or what students are being recommended for discipline. They may not know exactly what the recommendation is, but they will be able to see that these students have some concerns at the building level and so a recommendation is being made as it relates to them.”

He said by taking the Pupil Personnel Committee away from being a board committee, “it really protects the privacy rights of the students that may be going through this process.”

Waller did say that when the full board has to deal with a case at a meeting that it faces a similar situation, but it would not see the same number of students. Those hearings typically take place, he said, before the board’s main public hearing at 7 p.m., so there would likely also be fewer people in attendance.

“I think it’s in line with what other localities in the region are doing,” Byrum said, “and the protection of the rights of students are very important.”

Byrum and Brooks-Buck also agreed that there was no more need to have the City Council Liaison Committee, with the board and council having more joint meetings.

“I agree that the dissolution of the committee makes sense because right now, it’s really just causing confusion as to what the committee function actually is,” Brooks-Buck said.

Waller also asked the Policy Review Committee to review the function of the Finance Committee to have it in line with what that committee has been discussing.

Waller said the committee would, going forward, be charged with looking at “major accounting changes in policy and significant fluctuations in revenue and expenses that could affect operations, information about the annual resolution concerning authorizing the superintendent to spend down remaining funds in the operating fund and independent audit reports and comments.” Byrum and Brooks-Buck are also on that committee.

Brooks-Buck and Byrum asked for it to be for first reading and adoption on next month’s board meeting. Board members would still be able to comment, and could table it to the November meeting if they indicate they are not ready to move forward.

The Policy Review Committee also discussed whether to change the procedure for calling special meetings of the board. Currently, the board chairperson or two members of the board can call for a special meeting.

Waller said this is in line with other school divisions in the region, but there are other divisions that require more than two members to call meetings, or only allow the chairperson to call special meetings.

Brooks-Buck said she did not have a problem with the chairwoman or the majority the board calling for a special meeting.

“I do have a problem in the middle of a pandemic with people calling a special meeting a week after the meeting if the special meeting is called,” Brooks-Buck said, “because I made a recommendation and most of the people didn’t agree with me. I think that’s a whole other thing.”

She said that the conditions of the special meeting require a quorum to be present in person, “and the person calling the meeting is not present for the meeting. They’re joining us in another place, which puts the people who have to come to the meeting as a physical disadvantage or in harm’s way.”

Brooks-Buck said a specially called board meeting should have an urgency to it, such as the one the board held in August to announce the superintendent’s school reopening plan.

Byrum also asked about whether to allow the superintendent the ability to call a special meeting. Brooks-Buck said the superintendent would make the board chairperson aware of any need for a special meeting to allow that person to call one.

Waller said he would draft language for the Policy Review Committee to consider at its next meeting about special meetings of the board.