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Montoursville School Board meeting policy change causes contention

A Montoursville Area School Board meeting that began as a celebration of student winners of an essay contest about the Holocaust quickly devolved into acrimony as accusations flowed freely about who was being transparent and who was grabbing power.

The source of the friction was a 5-2 vote to change a policy on when items can be added to the agenda and by whom.

The changes to the policy in question state that “any additions or changes to the prepared agenda may be requested by the superintendent, no additional action items will be added to the agenda by the board for consideration at that meeting.”

The original language had included that a board member could also request additions and changes be made.

Concerning the agenda, the policy says that it is the responsibility of the superintendent in cooperation with the secretary/business manager to prepare the agenda of “the items of business to come before the board at each regular meeting. The agenda, together with all relevant reports, shall be provided to each school director at least three days before the meeting.”

At the same time, the agenda and appropriate attachments are also posted on the district’s website for public access.

Members of the public who were present at Tuesday’s meeting were vocal in their opposition to the changes to the policy, which they felt concentrated power in the hands of the superintendent and the board president.

During the first public comment section of the meeting, prior to the vote on the change in the policy, district resident Paul Rinker said that he felt the change was “obviously intended to keep board members, all of them, from being able to bring anything up in a meeting.”

“This is a board, that’s unacceptable. These people have as much say as anybody else when it comes to this meeting. I think the real reason is that you don’t want anything to happen as a result of public comment,” Rinker said.

Another district resident, Catherine Burns, said that she found it interesting that the meeting opened up with a group of students that “clearly studied the Holocaust and what Hitler did not only to the Jewish people but many others who got caught up in the murders and the suppression of what happened in Europe in the early 1940’s.”

“That suppression is being carried on in this school board by making decisions like what you want to make tonight to limit the agenda. I think it’s wrong,” she said. “I think for five years the attitude of quite a number of the members of this board has been a liberal destructive agenda. Think about what you’re doing when you vote to restrict and limit the agenda because by doing that, you’re not just shutting one or two members of your board up, you’re shutting everyone in this room who came here tonight.”

When the agenda item pertaining to the policy change came up for a vote, Ronald Snell questioned who had recommended the change. Superintendent Christina Bason acknowledged that she had decided to recommend the change after the last meeting, which had resulted in a change in the mask policy in the district. Her admission was met with boos from the audience.

“Mrs. Bason, I have to respectfully tell you, we don’t work for you … we work for our constituents,” Snell said.

“For two people to control what goes on the agenda when there are nine of us board members plus yourself, makes ten. We all have the same rights, we all have the same power and we all have the same responsibilities. In fact, we have more responsibilities, Mrs. Bason than you do. We have the responsibility of listening to our constituents,” Snell added.

Although Bason agreed that all board members have the same rights and the same responsibilities to their constituents in the district, she noted that every resident of the district should have the right to know what will be addressed at board meetings.

“You are absolutely correct, you all have the same rights. And you have it to every constituent, not just the constituents in the room,” Bason said.

“When you were president you demanded that nothing hit the agenda, because of transparency. That transparency that you wanted was so that every citizen, every constituent could see every item. You walked in last week and didn’t do that,” Bason added, referring to the meeting where the issue of students wearing masks was voted on.

“You, who for two years said that we had to have transparency with that rule. So, you came in, you did not allow any public input from anybody other than those who were here,” Bason said.

“You didn’t share with the board that you were going to make an agenda item prior to, which you and I have talked about quite a bit, and then you wanted something voted on while we were here, which you have never supported when you were the president. You demanded that we add the appropriate attachments shall be posted on the district’s public accessible website so that everyone could see. But you didn’t do that. So, you only gave your constituents something that they wanted without giving it to every constituent,” the superintendent added.

Snell countered by saying that during his tenure as board president he had allowed votes taken on motions that had not been on the agenda.

“But, to take the power away from us to make that agenda item added is 100 percent wrong,” Snell said.

Bason stated that rather than taking power away, the change in the policy would assure that all the public would be able to know what items were being voted on.

“You always wanted to make sure of that,” Bason told Snell.

“Transparency is not a convenience. Every citizen deserves to know what is happening — not just certain citizens. If this group of individuals heard that we were going to do something that was against them, but only those present got to hear that and got to see that vote and take place in that vote, then that wouldn’t be fair to anyone. You have transparency for a reason. You asked for this for a reason,” she added.

Snell argued that the only requirement before a vote is taken is that community members that are present to speak on it after it’s put on the agenda.

“So why isn’t every person equal in your example?” Bason asked.

“To spring a vote on the board members, who had no idea the vote was coming or that those two agenda items were coming … out of the blue we had those two items. It caught the rest of us by surprise,” David Shimmel, board president said of the vote taken at last month’s meeting, which ended up being held on the district’s tennis court.

“There was only a hundred people that knew that … but there was 7,000, 8,000 other residents who had no idea that agenda items, very important items were coming.” Shimmel added.

Shimmel assured those in attendance, who were outspoken in their displeasure about the changes, that if somebody wants something on the agenda, it will go on the agenda if it is a critical issue. He cited the board policy which allows the board, on a majority vote, to suspend the operation of a board procedure or policy provided it does not conflict with legal requirements.

“In other words, if we walk in here on one night and something very urgent has happened, we can vote to suspend this policy,” Shimmel said.

Changes to the policy were approved by a 5-2 vote. Voting for the changes were: Dottie Mathers, William Ruffing, Shimmel, Jennifer Marriott and Susan Beery. Voting no were Snell and Daniel Albert. Scott Konkle and Dale Ulmer were absent.

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