Pine Plains BOE addresses contentious public comments
PINE PLAINS — The atmosphere at the Pine Plains Central School District (PPCSD) Board of Education (BOE) meetings has gotten to be steadily more contentious in recent months, so much so that as of October, the BOE decided to hold all of its meetings virtually.
The BOE has also, ever since July, felt the need to have two deputies from the Dutchess County Sheriff’s Office on hand at its bi-monthly school board meetings.
As BOE President Anne Arent explained, the deputies, who are not school resource officers, are there specifically for the board meetings. She said they’re there to protect both board members and the community.
“We’ve been criticized for it, but we feel we need them there,” she said. “Clearly at the last meeting they were [needed]… I understand; people get angry… ”
Sept. 15 meeting
The last meeting Arent referred to happened on Wednesday, Sept. 15, when a number of community members came out to speak at the BOE meeting, some of whom were parents and some of whom were not.
They raised issues from suggesting cameras in the classroom to how children are gathered together in classrooms during the COVID crisis to the topic of gender identity being discussed privately between students and teachers. The September public comments led to an upswell of emotions that had the BOE president concerned it could lead to fisticuffs.
Public comment policy
Arent wanted to make it clear that she states at the start of every public comment session that the BOE does not respond to any comments made by community members at the podium during its meetings.
The BOE does follow up with those who speak at its open meetings, depending on if the question is geared toward the board or the administration.
The school board deals with district policy and financial business while the administration deals with the day to day issues, curriculum, teaching materials, discipline and things of that nature.
Arent said the BOE responds to community members either by email or “snail mail” within 24 to 48 hours.
“I really try,” she said. “If a comment is something adversarial, I get back ASAP… It’s hard because I work full time, we all do.”
It’s worth noting BOE meetings are not public meetings — they are open meetings. A public meeting means the public can take part in the meeting. An open meeting means the public can observe the meeting.
“We’re not required to have public comment, but we believe in it,” said Arent, who added, “We follow the law to the letter.”
Some of those who come to the board meetings are there to catch up on school business, but Arent is worried that others simply want to stir up trouble.
She mentioned one particular community member, who is not a parent, who spoke at the Sept. 15 meeting about putting cameras in classrooms. Arent said he’s attended numerous BOE meetings in recent months.
“He wants to watch the classrooms. That to me is scary,” said Arent. “He’s not a parent and he wants to watch what’s going on; that’s a safety issue on so many levels and a privacy issue.”
Escalation of emotions
Meanwhile, BOE member Jim Griffin agreed the meetings have “been an escalation” of emotions and reactions among community members that have been difficult to get under control.
Griffin was recently in Tokyo for his job during the Olympic games, but reported that the situation with the crowds getting rowdy at board meetings did start worsening in July.
“And really it has been escalating at each one and getting more contentious and to an extent dangerous,” he added.
He said there was an exchange with some “hotheaded” parents whom he described as “antagonistic.” It’s never been this bad, said the eight-year BOE member.
“The last time we even had anything close to this was when we made some changes in the ag program with the FFA, which got a lot of people out,” said Griffin. “We had a full meeting and people were passionate about it, but it was nothing like this.”
Pandemic a sore point
“I think it’s coming down to a lot of complaints about why are we only listening to some experts and not others,” added the BOE member. “But there’s very little the district can do when there are mandates. We face a $1,000 fine per violation when we do not implement the mask policy… We’re seeing an escalation about the national conversation hitting us at home now.”
Griffin said he understands how exhausted people have become trying to figure out what’s best for their families. Those serving on the school board are dealing with the same issues, he said. Arent agreed that everyone is feeling the stress of having lived through what is quickly coming up on two years under pandemic conditions.
“I think parents are tired, the community is tired — everybody is tired,” said Arent. “But we’re following the mandates of New York State, and that won’t change.”
The need for protection
It’s gotten tense at the BOE meetings. For one executive session, the sheriff’s deputies felt it was prudent to escort the seven school board members to the private portion of their meeting.
“We’ve had to go to executive session and one deputy came in and said, ‘I think it’s best if I escort you to executive session,’ and that’s difficult for us because we are trying to do our jobs to the best of our ability,” said Arent. “We’ve had deputies escorting the BOE since the end of July, and maybe earlier than that. It’s been within the last three months… It makes me sad quite honestly… [but] it’s well worth it because we feel we need to feel there’s someone else keeping an eye on us so we can get our work done.”
Despite the tensions and the commotion, though, Griffin said he and his colleagues continue to make the students and their education the board’s top priority. Members attend each BOE meeting after what usually amounts to hours of prep work ready to listen to concerned parents, teachers and administrators, even students sometimes.
“I think the other mistake people are making is they’re saying, ‘You’re not hearing us.’ I hear every comment people are saying,” said Griffin. “We’re serving a population of two counties with nine towns; we have 6,000 taxpayers and change. I’ve heard from everyone who comes to our board meetings.”
Yet to ensure the safety of board members, and those in the audience — as some of the tensions that have arisen have been among members of the public — Griffin said the BOE meetings are going online.
“[We’ve] gone virtual for now; we’re taking it as it is and have committed to virtual meetings through October,” he said. “I can’t imagine that tensions will cool by the time our first meeting happens in November, because the escalation has been constant and more tense every single time. There are pretty hostile people who have pointed right into other people’s faces… the line between when something is disruptive and not violent, that’s only a couple of seconds.”
Griffin added that he hopes the community can calm down soon, and the school board can get back to doing what it was elected to do — what it volunteers to do, unpaid — work to advance the district and establish the best and most challenging academic environment for its students.
“This illness we’re going through as a country has everybody kind of traumatized,” he said. “I don’t want it to set the tone. I would like us to get past this. This is not the end all and be all; it’s not what Pine Plains is all about.”