Listening to the public


Commentary by Larry Lannan

When covering local government, you grow accustomed to elected officials deferring to staff recommendations. After all, it was the elected officials that hired the staff to avail themselves of professional expertise.

On July 22, the Hamilton Southeastern School Board voted not to support a staff recommendation, after students, recent students and some parents argued against the proposed change.

HSE has been using an outside group of instructors for the Creating Positive Relationships program. The school system paid the outside organization for this.

The administration surveyed the 28 health teachers throughout the school system and 21 said they could teach the CPR program and, at the same time, save the school corporation money in a time of tight budgets.

When the board took up the matter, it allowed eight people to speak, each with a time limit. All eight speakers from the general public made an impassioned plea to keep the program as it is now, with the outside instructors.

The school administrators, led by Asst. Supt. Dr. Beth Niedermeyer, told the board that school system health teachers are capable of teaching this course. At the same time, there would be budget savings.

Once the presentations were made, it was up to the board to decide. Each board member made initial comments. Each praised both sides for making persuasive arguments, but in the first round of comments, no board member took a position.

Board members Katrina Hockemeyer and Karen Harmer both decided to support the staff and make the changes as staff recommended. They said the public comments were compelling but finally came down in favor of the staff.

Board member John DeLucia was on vacation and did not attend the session. Ron Wilson chose to abstain.

Board members Diane Eaton, Sylvia Shepler and Darren Sink voted to keep the program as it stands with the outside teachers. The final vote was 3-2.

What struck me about this vote was how the board members appeared to struggle with the issue. They all wanted to support their own administrative staff. However, in the end, a majority voted with the public sentiment expressed at the meeting.

This tells me local elected officials hear the staff, but also listen to the public. After all, every elected official won their seat on election day because the public chose to place them in a position of public trust.

With back to school time now approaching, this is one example of a school board listening and acting after hearing persuasive public comments.