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School Board Caps Public Opinion At Three Minutes

Residents demand more time to vocalize concerns during school board meetings

Former school board member Nancy Stern addressed the board on several topics during the April 23 school board meeting in Fort Lee High School’s auditorium.

Among her concerns were the correct process of calling a special private work session, the appointment of staff members and district coordinators, and where the board and administration stand on the charter schools issue.

“Some board members have been very vocal. They are opposed to charter schools and yet there’s still no action,” said Stern, who addressed an article on the state’s first comprehensive charter school set to open in Newark.

According to Stern, classes will be available online and the charter school is beginning to enroll students from across the state for next fall.

"Even as questions persist as to how exactly the new breed of school will operate and get funded, it’s supposed to start in Newark and expand to other districts within the state at an estimated cost of $13,000 per student,” Stern added.

But before she could finish asking the board to support Senator Loretta Weinberg’s 1418 bill and take a stand against charter schools, she was informed by school board attorney representative Bruce Padula, from Cleary, Giacobbe, Alfieri, Jacobs, that she had 30 seconds to finish her questions and statements. 

“I will give credit to the mayor and council because although they have a three-minute rule, they’ll allow people to talk,” Stern said. “In all due respect, after being interrupted and saying, ‘Thirty seconds left’, or not letting there be a dialogue, is really..."

“Your time is up,” Padula interjected.

Although Board President Art Levine voiced his opposition against charter schools, what followed was a shift in dialogue from items on the agenda, to an outcry to be heard.

“This three-minute rule I find ridiculous and personally an embarrassment to the district,” said Fort Lee resident David Sarnoff. “To not be able to have a dialogue – I’ve conferred with people in other towns and they don’t believe me.”

“With respect to the charter schools, being vocal and words are great, and I appreciate them, but actions are more to me,” Sarnoff added. “I would love to see a resolution passed, putting it in writing, having the board take a stand and notifying the state as where their position is.”

One resident attended the meeting to learn why a superintendent search was being conducted when the majority of the people she spoke to approve of Steven Engravalle, the interim superintendent. 

“But in doing so, I come to a meeting where I see someone who was asking questions that I found to be pertinent, as I was learning from the questions, being cutoff because of this three-minute rule,” said Fort Lee resident Vincenza Spina. “I find it incredibly arrogant that we spend our money to fund this school [district], and this board can’t give these people more than three minutes.”

Spina, as well as other residents who followed, disagreed with another board rule forbidding the transfer of time left over when someone stops speaking before their three minutes are up. 

School Board President Art Levine defended the board’s three-minute rule saying the meetings need to be kept under control, and in many meetings, it is the same people approaching the board multiple times on the same issues.

“Ever since we’ve done it [three-minute rule], the meetings move faster, and they’re more efficient,” explained Levine. “I’m not running out the door. I’ll stay and answer questions till midnight. But it makes the meetings more manageable."

As for Stern's comparison to the public comment segment during the mayor and council meetings and the absence of time limits, Levine said the public is only allowed to speak on an item after the mayor and council has voted on it.

“The mayor and council votes on stuff and then you come up,” Levine added. “We don’t do that. Here’s it’s different. Here, we let people talk before it’s voted on.”

Levine said he would revisit the three-minute rule with the board.  

Tracy April 24, 2012 at 12:44 PM
This article is a platform for non-Fort lee education issues and forgets the fact that the three minute rule was created and enforced due to the excessive grandstanding and conversing at will, during the BOE meetings. It used to be too often more like a discussion in your living room than a state educational meeting. More often that not it has been indulgence of a few that stagnates the work of the BOE. It was not a pretty sight and rather offensive to any sensibility. The rule was implemented to regain control and move the meetings into effective work sessions. Just as any effective meeting is conducted. The BOE has spoken out against Charter Schools, numerous times. If a resolution needs to be put on the agenda to serve to a personal agenda, so be it, get it on there and get it done-if it means so much and in truly inert to the rest of the business being done, placate the gallery. I happen to like the three minute rule, I like the control and results it has provided a much controversial form of government. I like the fact there is not conversation going back and forth, I like the fact that there is minimal grandstanding and lessen the political forum. The Fort Lee public should like it too, the BOE is moving along with what they are supposed to be doing!
Wonk April 24, 2012 at 01:13 PM
It is completely cowardice and arrogance on behalf of the school board and superintendent that they cap these comments, and even more so how they ignore them and change the subject. No one sitting at that table responds to questions at these meetings, and it is getting to the point that someone is going to have to file a lawsuit to get them to start answering for their actions. They are running amuck without any checks and balances and it is wrong. It is a complete waste of tax payers money that they use a lawyer to run a stopwatch instead of actually answering legal questions. What kind of example is this setting for the students? That their voices do not matter? Our elected officials answer to us, not the other way around.
Paul Umrichin April 24, 2012 at 02:04 PM
The 3 minute rule is necessary at the meetings at times to keep the meeting moving along. Generally the BOE has been fairly liberal and allowed people to extend their comments. However there are times where the speakers need to be cut short and for the meeting to move along. If it weren't for this rule the meetings would be chaotic at best given the amount of people who want to speak, then want to speak again, and again. The lawyers also need to sit back and not be timekeepers. If a person needs a few extra seconds to finish their statement then let them finish.
David Sarnoff April 24, 2012 at 02:28 PM
There have been times over the years, on limited occasions, when a member of the public does not adhere to a "reasonable" amount of time. However, it is not just the 3 minute requirement, it is the fact that you must ask all your questions at once, then the BOE can respond if they wish. You are then precluded from replying. Thus, there can be no discussion of an issue. There are times when the agenda, including backup can be 80-100 pages. Especially, in my opinion, in light of this BOE rarely, has a public work session where they discuss contracts, programs, expenses etc., the public is left with no alternative to ask questions prior to the vote. I am not asking for an open mic, however, we should be able to discuss an issue, especially big ticket items, when there has been no prior public discussion.
Tracy April 24, 2012 at 02:42 PM
Wonk, If you know ANYTHING about education and school law, there are all checks and balances throughout! Please!
Tracy April 24, 2012 at 03:13 PM
You understand that Ft Lee has always been a Board of committees correct? The work sessions are done in designated committees and the final product or recommendation is brought to the BOE. They have explained things in areas extensively (I understand what they are saying) but need not bring every decision to the public discussion arena when its in the guidelines of school law and state regulations. But that is ignored and passed over by the gallery members--- so which do you want? Whole Board or Committee? You have to understand that process and procedure to be effective!
David Sarnoff April 24, 2012 at 03:19 PM
Can you tell me how many committee reports or public work sessions you have witnessed in the past year? Why is "Public Work Session" and "Committee Reports" listed on almost every BOE agenda?
Tracy April 24, 2012 at 03:38 PM
IF the gallery didn't lose control so easily and posed their concerns as questions not as antagonistic remarks, reaching for some sort approval from each other, the BOE may be able to relax the rule--- when the time is right. See, I find it more cowardly and arrogant, and even ignorant behaviors to stomp feet, suck your teeth, roll your eyes, scream and yell, accuse of impropriety, and irresponsibility, bring in loosely associated issues to emphasize the emotion (not the point)....when you become in control and focused, and listen carefully will be when you will become effective members of the gallery, We all are there because we care, that is evident!
Tracy April 24, 2012 at 03:51 PM
Dave, give me a few minutes--- I have to think about the dates/subjects that you will identify. You are quite distrustful of these people, aren't you? My challenge in this is that I already understand education and its management, why decisions are made and how because of my back ground, being married to an administrator (dinner table talk), understanding of education and just plain being in love with it. Some that come to mind right away are 1- Engravalle not being appointed, 2- Engravalle being appointed as Acting 3- the G&B subcommittees recommendation for the construction 4- the election moving from April to November.... that is just the beginning. I believe these stick out in my mind because there was such backlash from the gallery. Didn't the curriculum Committee final speak up too, recently? Give me some more time to remember more.......
Tracy April 24, 2012 at 03:57 PM
Oh Dave I do have an severe objection to paying a lawyer $140 per hour for even being there and then having to time of the three minute rule! That is not cool!
David Sarnoff April 24, 2012 at 04:03 PM
Tracy, please do not characterize whether or not I am trustful or distrustful of anyone. I am glad to see you were able to name 4 instances in a year when probably hundreds of resolution were voted on.
David Sarnoff April 24, 2012 at 04:05 PM
Then please speak to the Board of Ed. I did not hire the lawyer. But please keep your comments to less than 3 minutes.
Tracy April 24, 2012 at 04:13 PM
Lol! good one Dave!
Wonk April 24, 2012 at 04:17 PM
Tracy you seem to attack everyone who does not agree entirely with your very narrow perspective. You really lost all credibility with me when you made an unsubstantiated accusation about people covering up sexual assaults. That was disgustingly wrong, and displays your complete lack of perspective and bias. You and the BOE are very much alike: you only like to hear from the people who you want to hear from on your terms, and think the rest should be censored. People have legitimate questions, and they want answers. When the BOE refuses to answer they turn to the Patch and other outlets to publicly point out the issues. It is crazy to me that you think the gallery should be controlled when they grow frustrated. They are not getting answers from the BOE, and not from the acting superintendent. He is being paid a lot of money, he can spend the time to talk to the public when he is not too busy hobnobbing in Trenton. You at least shout down people by overwhelming every single story with post after post. They just choose to ignore people's comments and respond to nothing. You are not the author of this article, and you are not the only person with an opinion.
Tracy April 24, 2012 at 04:28 PM
But trust does have to do with it Dave. The BOE members are not educators, you are not in the field of education, but are looking in from the stands. The BOE members must trust the professionals they have hired, because they are the experts, they are the ones with intimate and working knowledge of education, NOT the BOE members. It seems that this BOE trusts who they have now. They need to operate as a Board, striking the balance of what is best for the children and town. Your questions and actions to me, demonstrates a lack of understanding of what a Board does, how education works and seems that you are distrustful of it. Its my opinion Dave, and I sit meeting after meeting witnessing it. 90% of the resolutions are to do with that expertise and knowledge, process of education and trust of the admistrators-- if you want an explanation line by line, ask, politely, without grandstanding or politicizing or commenting.
Howard L. Pearl April 24, 2012 at 04:36 PM
Bruce Padula, from Cleary, Giacobbe, Alfieri, Jacobs must have failed “charm school”. Informing the audience that “HE” had decided that the list of rehirees” should not be read, when his own firm had declared it legal in past years, exuded an air of total arrogance. His presence the entire evening created an unpleasant atmosphere. In the future, he might consider staying home and watching what I suspect is his favorite show “the Housewives of New Jersey”. In the past, on “many occasions”, Nina Levinson, Paula Colbath and Nancy Stern abused privilege, usurping the dialogue and extended the meetings far too long. That is why the three minute rule was reinstated. But that has changed. All of them are now respectful of the time limitations. Therefore, reconsideration should be given to its implementation, e.g. no buzzers and no interruption of the speaker, “unless speakers are truly abusing privilege”. And the interruption should be a polite “excuse me, could you please conclude your questions?”. Speakers racing through their questions impedes any useful dialogue. The 3-minute rule creates an adversarial atmosphere. What we need now is to repair the relationship with the BOE and the community, not estrange it further.
Tracy April 24, 2012 at 04:39 PM
Wonk, Thank you for demonstrating my point. Whining and crying that I will challenge you. I want to discuss things, however I find it impossible when it goes into whining and crying. You are usually stronger than this what happened? And I have grown tired of people thinking they know more about education than the experts we have in place--- I do not want Ramano back here, period, but its due to his performance while here.
carol simon April 24, 2012 at 05:04 PM
I believe I was at the meeting not too long ago when the 3-minute rule was excercised without warning. The flavor the the meeting was altered dramatically and a power struggle created an already stressed environment to a combative one. A skilled mediator needs to help the conversation forward by using judgement, common courtesy and pragmatic language skills ie. turn-taking and dialogue.
CD Cantelli April 24, 2012 at 05:39 PM
Very well said. You don't have to know education law to have common sense. The three minute time is a policy of the BOE that should be relaxed unless the speaker takes advantage. How long was last night's meeting that you couldn't give people more than 3 minutes?
CD Cantelli April 24, 2012 at 09:05 PM
Part of the Board's duties is to foster a relationship with the community. Under it's policies, the Board is then supposed to evaluate itself on it's conduct at the meetings and it's relationship to the community. I want to see it's assessment on the issue of a 3 minute policy - not a rule or statute- a policy. A policy that specifically says the Board President can waive. Any BOE member who supports this should be voted out of office, no questions asked.
Tracy April 24, 2012 at 09:14 PM
I must be the only attendee around who actually read this years ago, when I first started going to BOE meetings--- I knew about the 3 minute rule, always kept my questions brief, when I had something to say http://board-of-education.flboe.com/modules/locker/files/get_group_file.phtml?fid=13887491&gid=1565863&sessionid=f16160e6d7e4e230a9e4f1df35950684
CD Cantelli April 24, 2012 at 09:43 PM
Tracy, that's my point, the link you posted says the Board has a right to limit the public to 3 minutes. It doesn't say the Board must. The policy also says that the President can relax the limitation - he chose not to relax it because he said people abuse the the system - bull - truth is that Board does not care what anyone says. I am convinced they wouldn't have a public portion if they didn't have to. Most of the time during the meeting, the members didn't even look up at the public talking. It was disgusting. On the comment that at the Council meetings people speak after the vote - that's not true. The BOE president should attend a Council meeting,at least the Mayor knows how to run a public meeting to make the public feel like they matter.
Tracy April 24, 2012 at 09:59 PM
Chris-- I cannot agree with the statement that they do not care, they do care and most are trying to do good. They are tired of all the unfounded non- constructive criticism and being spoken to like they are worthless. This policy was enforced because of the excessive grandstanding and at-will conversations. When people are willing to act civilized even when they become frustrated, the policy can be relaxed. I think the BOE reads a lot, during the meetings, and has limited interaction under advice becasue of the difficulties with the gallery in the past. I have only missed a few BOE meetings in two years or so (last night being one), the rhetoric can become unbearable when people get to yelling, and not listening. Don't get me wrong there is a lot of great questions too, but they get lost in the muck, which is a sin, becasue that is where the frustration can be alleviated. I will agree with you that the Mayor is second to none, he has that x-factor that does well for us in Fort Lee, he is a natural leader. I appreciate you honest and candid comments, it a good thing!

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