School Committee members rated the panel’s community engagement as weak or in need of improvement, with the School Committee at the Wednesday, Sept. 30 meeting during discussions about the issue.
“I think it’s poor,” Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak said of the committee’s track record. “I don’t think these meetings allow engagement of the community unless it’s a hot topic. I would like to see it better.”
Vice Chairman Christopher Scriven said he doesn’t know what more the committee does to engage the community other than posting the meeting.
Chairman Bob Hayes was unable to attend due to a prior commitment and Committee member Fred Small participated in the meeting remotely via telephone.
“I understand that there’s got to be more than just community involvement for the stakeholders,” said committee member Steven Bois.
“We have to get more information out to the people when they need it,” agreed member Dan Cullity. “We have to start educating them much better. …Sometimes it falls on deaf ears with some groups out there.”
Member Fred Small suggested structured time within meetings to answer questions that citizens submit could help get people more involved. Members Dawn Byers and Hillary Kniffen termed the effort ineffective and member Michael Jones graded it weak.
Member Christopher Howard,, who led that discussion agreed.
“We have limited participants and it was even worse pre-COVID, as we would only have a handful of people attend the meeting,” Howard said. “It’s not their problem to fix, it’s ours.”
Howard asked each committee members to list three ways the committee could improve engagement.
Committee member David Forth suggested establishing a community relations subcommittee, or use of a Zoom session through which community members could dial in and ask questions as well as liaisons to PTOs and a student advisory council.
Scriven favors a subcommittee approach, but wanted members to submit ideas for that by the next meeting at 7 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 21.
Forth and Jones also liked the idea of pop-up meetings, and social media efforts as well as shortening meetings.
While she said a public comment opportunity “needs to happen,” Kniff said a Zoom call might not be the most effective avenue for it. She said being visible in the community might be more effective and liked Jones’ idea of appointing a point person for social media.
Szymaniak said the Zoom call for public comment could potentially be in place by the next committee meeting. Cullity said the chairman controls that aspect of the agenda in any case.
“Yes, people are going to be out on social media and they’re going to have their own opinions, but we can state the facts,” Byers said. “It’s best if you can point them right back to a district documents and then turn off those comments and notifications and just leave it there.”
Byers also suggested School Committee members could attend PTO meetings as “ears” and report back on things PTO members wish to tell them.
Szymaniak said the public comment idea gives an opportunity to speak at a specific point in a meeting, with people sometimes required to sign in as guests to do so ahead of time, which can also give the opportunity for members to research their question. He also found value in attending PTO meetings and having a public relations professional to direct a social media effort. He also suggested committee members should feel free to use the “Principally Speaking” column space allotted to the School District in the Whitman-Hanson Express as a way to communicate directly with residents.
The Mass. Association of School Committees does not permit committees to operate Facebook pages.
“I never want to engage in any argumentative or controversial [discussions] or I never speak on behalf of the committee on social media — just giving our effective information,” Byers said, noting she has had informational posts removed from community Facebook pages in the past.
Both Kniffen and Forth said they use personal Facebook pages to post factual information and meeting recaps about School Committee activity, which are permitted by the MASC, and not opinions. Small voiced concern that such recaps are more akin to non-approved draft minutes. Forth said he ran his intention to recap by MASC, but Kniffen suggested that Forth go into a bit less detail to address Small’s concerns.
Bois agreed that her posts have been effective in getting the facts before the community.
Howard said timeliness is a problem with social media. If one is not on it all the time, one could miss a timely opportunity to correct errors or misinformation.
“I’m an admitted dinosaur when it comes to social media,” Scriven said. I don’t engage in it — hardly ever. … From my perspective it presents more challenges than [benefits].”
He argued it is especially true for a school committee, which is bound by policies and restrictions.
“I think it’s important for us to speak with one voice as a committee, and not have the off shoots,” Scriven said. “I don’t know what that looks like. I just have those concerns.”
During the three-hour meeting, committee members also pointed to the length of meetings as a turn-off for residents who might otherwise attend.