Northampton school, city meetings becoming virtual marathons

  • Northampton High School FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 7/30/2020 12:16:16 PM
By GRETA JOCHEM

NORTHAMPTON — Well after midnight on Wednesday of last week, the School Committee was still talking over Zoom about schools reopening, but some observers had stopped watching hours earlier.

“I was following along live until about 9:30 when I went to bed,” one commenter wrote on a Facebook thread on the public Northampton, MA page. “I gave up watching at 9 pm,” another person wrote.

Wednesday’s session is just one example of several recent School Committee meetings that have gone until late at night or into the next morning.

“I would concede it does feel like the meetings are going longer,” said Mayor David Narkewicz, chairman of the School Committee. “I don’t know whether it’s attributed to the extraordinary times we’re trying to operate under ... or the fact that we can’t meet in person, and we have to use the Zoom platform, which creates its own challenges.”

One concern, he said, is that “we’re often discussing fairly significant items late at night or early in the morning, which isn’t necessarily the best time to make those decisions.” Those hours also limit public participation, he noted: “Obviously, not everyone wants to stay up and watch School Committee until 1 in the morning.”

Others share those concerns. 

“I don't believe that I'm thinking clearly and capable of my best decision-making at midnight,” Ward 2 School Committee member Laura Fallon wrote in an email to the Gazette as one of several reasons why she thinks the long meetings are an issue. 

The committee recently asked that agendas include suggested time limits for each item to avoid meetings going late into the night, a practice that will begin in early August, Narkewicz said.

Suggested time limits will be helpful, said Susan Voss, an at-large member of the committee, who noted that the meetings have been long because there has been so much ground to cover. 

“This is part of the job of elected officials,” she said. “I’m not going to not do the work because it’s taking too long.”

“We have this horrible pandemic,” she continued. “Our superintendent is working crazy hours. He’s working so hard. And School Committee members probably have to work hard, too, to play the role they are supposed to play during a time when things are changing so rapidly.” 

‘Unbearably long’ meetings

For years, resident Sam Hopper has been “diligently” watching School Committee meetings, but “never have I seen meetings go on so long, with very little output and such disregard to what their job is,” she wrote in an email to the Gazette. “As a caregiver of a student and as a member of this community, it’s infuriating.”

Long meetings are making it difficult for many to stay informed, she said during the public comment period at a School Committee meeting last week. 

“It’s a very privileged set of people that can sit for six hours and watch a meeting. The length of your meetings is a barrier to the community being involved and informed,” she said. 

One reason why they are so long: Many new members have not done their orientation training, and there is a “lack of understanding of what the job of a School Committee is,” Hopper said. 

Under state law, members must complete at least eight hours of orientation from the Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC), or from another state-approved program, within a year from their election and give a certificate of completion to the city. Training topics include open meeting law, special education law and collective bargaining. 

Of the five new members, only Ward 4 member Sean Condon has done the training and given the city a certificate of completion, according to Annie Thompson, the School Committee clerk.

Part of the issue is that there hasn’t been a training in Northampton since the election in November. The last training was in September 2019, according to MASC Executive Director Glenn Koocher. The organization planned to have training in Northampton in 2020, but it didn’t happen because of the pandemic, he said. The association just started offering online training sessions this summer, which started on Monday night, Koocher said. Condon said he did the orientation training in September. 

At-large member Roni Gold was elected in the fall. Before the pandemic began, he was planning to complete the training in Northampton. He’s now signed up for the online course this summer, which he hopes will help reduce the length of the meetings. “As soon as I got the emails for the online one, I signed up,” he said. 

Molly B. Burnham spent two terms on the School Committee and served until the end of last year. She has been watching School Committee meetings since 2001, but earlier this year, she stopped tuning in for the entire meeting. 

“They just got unbearably long, and I didn’t have the time,” she said.

Not having the MASC training is an issue, but Burnham doesn’t think it’s the reason why the meetings are long. She felt they were getting longer when she was on the committee. 

“We would have discussions where people felt like they just wanted to talk — I’m just going to say it and put myself in the hot seat in Northampton — and they’re having conversations that don’t take the mission of School Committee forward,” she said. 

At times, Burnham said it feels like people are making speeches and “I’m tired of people grandstanding.” She also worries that long meetings lead to dwindling public engagement.

“Because they are running the meetings like this, nobody knows what’s going on — people are not watching,” she said.  

The School Committee isn’t the only government body staying up until the wee hours — the City Council has also had several long meetings this year. One virtual city hearing last month, which drew more than 500 people and hours of public comment about the police department budget, ended around midnight. The same week, a meeting about the budget went until 2 a.m. Councilors voted to limit public comment to two hours at a subsequent meeting. 

End-of-the-fiscal year meetings are often long, said City Council President Gina-Louise Sciarra, made longer by “extensive public comment and significant conversation amongst ourselves.”

But in general, she doesn’t think City Council meetings are getting longer and expects that now that the budget season is over, meetings will be shorter.

There used to be a City Council rule that meetings end by 11 p.m., but members would always vote to suspend it, Sciarra said. The council removed the rule in 2016. Part of the responsibility of the council, Sciarra said, is to complete the agenda. 

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.


Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061
413-584-5000

 

Copyright © 2020 by H.S. Gere & Sons, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy