Wary Detroit Board May Limit Meeting Access

By Karla Scoon Reid — March 13, 2002 3 min read

The emotional chants and songs of protesters forced the Detroit board of education to abruptly adjourn its meeting late last month.

Now, the board is reviewing strategies to cope with the animated audiences it sometimes draws—and may hold its next meeting in a smaller room with limited seating for the public. The rest of the spectators would view the proceedings via closed-circuit television in a larger venue.

“We’re looking for ideas and ways that we can accomplish the mission of a school board meeting,” said W. Frank Fountain, the board president.

But Karen Kleinz, the associate director of the Rockville, Md.-based National School Public Relations Association, called the idea of using closed-circuit television for school board meetings a “radical departure.”

She said it’s challenging for any board to communicate its public-comment procedures. But, Ms. Kleinz said, disruptions often are part of a “self-perpetuating” culture in which people believe they can get results from public outbursts during meetings.

Reginald M. Felton, the director of federal relations for the Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association, said he would not want the use of closed-circuit televisions to have a “chilling effect” on community participation. Yet Mr. Felton, who also is a school board member in Montgomery County, Md., said that board members must balance the public’s right to be heard with its concerns for safety.

‘Professional Disrupters’

The Detroit board’s dilemma over crowd control began peacefully enough.

On Feb. 20, protesters joined a rally organized by a coalition of unions to denounce the district’s decision to cut about 700 positions, including custodians and clerical workers. They marched outside Martin Luther King High School, where the board was holding its regular meeting. The district has said the layoffs were necessary to help make up a $70 million shortfall. Inside the school, however, chants rang out during the meeting from those opposing the job cuts and crying for the ouster of the district’s chief executive officer, Kenneth S. Burnley, and the appointed school board.

Mr. Fountain described some spectators as “professional disrupters” who weren’t associated with the union protest. The board adjourned Now, the board is reviewing strategies to cope with the meeting after completing its business, but forgoing the public-comment portion of the proceedings.

“It was on the edge,” said Janna K. Garrison, the president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, who attended the meeting. “The disruption denied many people the opportunity to speak to the board.”

Detroit’s board has recessed meetings early in the past because of public disruptions, and has conducted business in smaller rooms. Mr. Fountain said the board has tolerated occasional emotional outbursts by audience members as well.

“But when your main mission is to shut down a board meeting, that’s something else,” he said. The board should be able to conduct its business without “interruption, threats, or intimidation,” Mr. Fountain added.

The board and district officials are reviewing options with the mayor, the police, and others regarding new meeting arrangements, Mr. Fountain said. The board hopes to meet again by the end of this month.

Holding board meetings in two sites using closed-circuit television isn’t unprecedented.

Dallas’ Experience

The Dallas board of education, for example, used closed-circuit television to control its spectators during an Oct. 1 meeting last year.

That meeting was reconvened three days after it was recessed because of a scuffle that occurred following an outburst by an activist speaking to the board in opposition to its redistricting plan. He knocked over a lectern and was led away from the meeting in handcuffs.

When it reconvened, the nine-member board met in a room that held about 80 people while the rest of the audience watched the meeting on television in an auditorium in the building. Ken Zornes, the board president, called it a temporary solution.

“I think, in hindsight, it wasn’t necessary,” he said, adding that there were no disruptions during the October meeting. “But we were concerned about more interruption and we wanted to be able to conduct business.”

Ron J. Price, the first vice president of Dallas’ board, said using closed-circuit television helped to temporarily defuse the tension. “You can’t do it forever,” he cautioned. “You can’t run away from the people you serve.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 13, 2002 edition of Education Week as Wary Detroit Board May Limit Meeting Access