Our Opinion: School board saves winter break, aims to boost openness

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Maybe this month’s midterm election served as a reminder to heed the voters’ will.

Perhaps they heard the old classroom cliché about listening twice as much as we talk because we have two ears and only one mouth.

Whatever the reason, the Wilson County Board of Education perked up its collective ears Monday, and all seven members acted on their constituents’ concerns.

Your school board earned high marks this week, voting unanimously to avoid a last-minute calendar change that would cut Christmas vacations short and finally deciding to rescind a three-day advance registration requirement for people who speak during board meetings.

Wilson County Schools staff had suggested extending the spring semester into 2019, pushing exams from December to January and shaving three days off the winter holiday in order to make up school days lost to Hurricane Florence in September and Hurricane Michael in October.

Parents, students and teachers objected. Holding end-of-semester tests right after a holiday break could lower scores, and families planned out-of-state vacations for which travel arrangements have already been made. Rejecting a last-minute bait-and-switch was the right thing to do.

“They said, ‘Please let us finish up the end of the year with the testing and all. Don’t carry it into January,’” District 6 member Gary Farmer said of students with whom he’d spoken.

It remains to be seen whether extra instructional time will be tacked on next semester. The N.C. General Assembly granted schools in Wilson and other storm-afflicted counties a waiver, so the make-up days are not mandatory. We’d suggest taking the state up on its offer to write off those hurricane days — it’s the quality, not quantity, of classroom time that counts.

In an encouraging step forward for the state of open government in our school system, the board directed administrators and Wilson County Schools attorney Brian Shaw to craft a new policy for members of the public who wish to address their elected representatives at monthly school board meetings.

Since May, rules have required speakers to sign up three full days in advance and describe the content of their remarks to school administrators. Those restrictions seemed designed to discourage public participation on the heels of an April meeting where parent speakers were censored. The Wilson Times editorial page flagged the board’s prior comment policy as unconstitutional.

Last month, District 5 board member Beverly Boyette initiated a review of the speaker rules adopted in May, showing leadership as an advocate for her constituents’ right to address the school board. We applaud her willingness to be a champion for the First Amendment, and we thank each of her colleagues for understanding the need to remove barriers to the people’s podium.

While we’re cautiously optimistic, we never endorse a policy before it’s written. It is our sincere hope that Wilson County Schools’ staff and counsel will craft a framework that favors open access and avoid the temptation to lard it up with needless complication.

Board members discussed scrapping the three-day registration rule and substituting a signup deadline of 30 minutes before each meeting, reverting to a prior standard. That would be a tremendous improvement to be sure, but why require advance registration at all?

Public bodies including the Wilson City Council impose no such requirement. Speakers can take the podium at will during time reserved for public comment and add their names to the sign-up sheet when they step in front of the microphone. There are no resulting delays; the refreshing lack of bureaucracy causes no harm.

Wilson’s meetings are efficient and nearly all speakers respectful. Even when folks get a little heated, Mayor Bruce Rose has no trouble keeping order. If it’s good enough for the city council, why not the school board?

This isn’t the time for half-measures or grudging compromises. Having shown itself capable of being responsive, the Wilson County Board of Education has a chance to declare full-throated support for the school stakeholders who take the time to voice their concerns. A win for open government is a victory the public and the board can share.

The new and (we hope) much improved public comment policy could be revealed during December’s meeting.

If they continue on the path of openness, transparency and accountability they forged Monday, your Wilson County school board members will do the right thing.