Proposal seeks to assure public is heard at Broward School Board planning workshops

By William Gjebre,    

Robin Bartleman


Following a stinging grand jury report that urged the Broward School Board to be more open, a proposed rule change would guarantee the public the opportunity to speak out at board workshops.  

The board has had a spotty practice regarding public input at workshops – important gatherings where issues are reviewed and ideas are exchanged – allowing it on occasion, but more often refusing to hear voices other than their own.
Community activists, long frustrated by the closed-nature of the workshops, welcomed the proposed policy. 

“It’s the first thing in a long list of things to be done,” said Charlotte Greenbarg, of the Broward Coalition that represents condominium and business organizations. She said in the past the public had “no way to participate” at the board workshops.    

The proposal will be presented at Tuesday’s board meeting. The measure could help ease public concerns stoked by the Statewide Grand Jury’s report that ripped the management and operational practices of district staff and board members. Among other things, the grand jury recommended the board conduct all business in public, including opening of bids, and that board meetings or workshops be conducted in accordance with Florida’s Sunshine Law.    

The public input proposal that will be placed before the board would add to the notion of open government.    

The board member who plans to introduce the measure says she wanted to do so for a while and said it’s not directly linked to the grand jury report. Some members of the public contend the measure will move through because of the grand jury report and an infusion of new board members.    

Robin Bartleman, at large board member since 2004, said it’s time to listen to the public when the board is at workshops to review issues or to receive information from staff on key issues. “They have valuable information,” she said.    

Bartleman said that in the past board members talked about taking public input at workshops, but nothing was done to assure it. “Some board members said they didn’t want public input in the past,” she said. “I wanted public input at workshops, but it never seemed to happen.”    

Bartleman said she wants the measure in a board rule or some other formalized document to give members of the public an “opportunity to speak.”    

Bartleman said her proposal will result in “more open” government, “a way to engage the public more in decision-making by allowing input, and to present their version of what would be discussed.”    

“I want to force this to happen,” Bartleman said. “The public has been waiting for this.”    

Judging by comments of other board members at a recent meeting – several newly elected after their predecessors were arrested on corruption charges – her proposal appears headed for approval.    

Fellow board member Patti Good said she supports the proposal, adding she had urged it when she was not on the board while attending workshops as a citizen. She joined the board last fall. “The public has good input,” she said, adding that the grand jury report should boost support for the proposal.    

For years, Greenbarg said, members of the district’s Facilities Task Force, of which she was a member, urged public participation at workshops, but to no avail.    

“I think the election of new board members, the jailing of one and the imminent trial of another” will play a part in opening up public input at workshops, Greenbarg said.  Also, she said, the grand jury report that she refers to as “the 800 pound gorilla that no one wants to talk about.”    

“I think it’s important to have input from the community,” said Freda Stevens, vice president of the Democratic Black Caucus of Broward County. “They did not do this before…This is because of the Grand Jury report.”    

“Opening it up for comment is definitely a positive move as community participation and input is crucial for the success of any program that they may be introducing,” said Latha Krishnaiyer, a former president of both the Broward County PTA and the Florida PTA.    

Krishnaiyer, a member of a community budget advisory committee that works with retiring Superintendent of Schools Jim Notter, said “I’m think they (board members) are trying to change in light of the grand jury report.”    

Two weeks ago, the Broward School Board approved measures related to recommendations of the grand jury, as follows: official action must only be taken at regular and special board meetings; all items with a financial impact will be considered at open meetings; and board members, under a revised code of ethics, are prohibited from influencing or interfering with employees serving on selection or evaluation committees.    

With Notter’s resignation last week, the board canceled plans to discuss an interim evaluation of him this month in the wake of the grand jury report. The report, critical of Notter’s management style, said, “The Board’s meddling into details that should be within the purview of the Superintendent has not helped the District deal with critical issues; instead it has worsened existing problems and created new ones. The Superintendent also bears responsibility for allowing the meddling and interference to continue.”   

The report also warned:  “We have learned that the Board and District has taken steps to institute some of the changes we will propose here today, perhaps in anticipation of the grand jury’s findings or in response to other events, including ongoing investigations and arrests. While it may seem redundant or unnecessary to some to propose changes already made, we are mindful that nothing is set in concrete. Bad habits and corrupt practices often return when the light of inquiry is turned off.”  

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