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Want more parents involved? Stop violating the law

I can't tell you how many times in the past year and a half or so that I've been covering the School Board that so many people have shown up to a meeting, they don't all fit in the boardroom.

Great news, right? When you get 200 or so people to miss dinner with their family on a Wednesday night to watch the slow wheels of democracy in action, they must be pretty motivated to get involved in their schools.

Board room audience But here's how it plays out: the overflow crowd ends up standing in the waiting room, watching the meeting on closed-circuit TV -- until they get too frustrated and end up leaving.

Everyone agrees that parent involvement is key to improving the schools. And School Board meetings provide the prime opportunity for parents (and everyone else) to get involved and speak directly to those in power.

So it seems a little curious that the School Board meetings are actually designed to shut people out.

As a matter of fact, not only is it curious -- it also violates state law.

You see, the state's Open Meetings Law is rather clear about government bodies needing to make their public meetings accessible to, well, the public. The idea is, if you want to attend a meeting of your city council or school board, you have the right to do that -- whether you're in a wheelchair, or whether you arrive a few minutes late, or whether a bunch of your neighbors want to attend that meeting, too.

Here's what the law says, in part:

Public bodies shall make or cause to be made all reasonable efforts to ensure that meetings are held in an appropriate facility which can adequately accommodate members of the public who wish to attend such meetings.

Council chambers Clearly, Room 801 in City Hall is not large enough to accommodate everyone who shows up to School Board meetings.

A few floors up, Common Council chambers can seat nearly 400 people.

And, according to the city's website, "The room is acoustically treated making the room perfect in the way of sound, even without a microphone."

Wow -- added bonus. Not only could the School Board actually comply with the state's Open Meetings Law by providing enough seating (two to three times as many seats as in the current boardroom) for the size of the crowds that show up -- but those who show up would actually be able to hear what's going on.

Speaking of hearing what goes on at board meetings...

Last week, I posted an item, "If board members speak and no one can hear them..." -- addressing the fact that it is incredibly difficult for people in the audience to actually hear what is said at the board table.

Apparently a few people read it.

When Interim Superintendent Amber Dixon started to address the audience at last week's board meeting, a woman in the audience hollered out that she couldn't hear Dixon. So Dixon did something I've never seen anyone in that room do before -- grab a microphone and (gasp) turn it on. Voila. Everyone in the room could hear what she said.

The excitement didn't end there. When Associate Superintendent Will Keresztes got up to the podium and addressed the board, he, too, used a microphone that was actually turned on. And he wasn't the only one. Other administrators, too, used a microphone. A couple of board members even used the microphones that have been sitting, unused, for months (and probably years).

So kudos to the officials who made the effort to pick up a mic and flick a switch to make sure the public could hear what's going on. Let's hope it becomes contagious.

Just imagine what might happen if there was actually enough room to seat all the people who care enough to get involved -- and they could even hear what was going on.

District officials might get what they always say they want: more parental involvement.

- Mary Pasciak

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About School Zone

Denise Jewell Gee

Denise Jewell Gee

Denise Jewell Gee joined The Buffalo News in 2007 and currently covers education and suburban schools. She also writes a column for the City & Region section and previously covered government in Erie County and Niagara Falls. Gee graduated from Boston University with degrees in journalism and political science.

@denisejewellgee |

Tiffany Lankes

Tiffany Lankes

Tiffany Lankes joined The Buffalo News in 2013 and primarily covers the Buffalo Public Schools. She has written about education since 2003 at newspapers in Florida and New York. In 2008, she was a nominated finalist for The Pulitzer Prize. Lankes is an Amherst native and graduate of Sacred Heart Academy and Syracuse University. She started her journalism career writing for the News’ NeXt section.

@TiffanyLankes |

Sandra Tan

Sandra Tan

Sandra Tan has been a cityside reporter for The Buffalo News since 2000 and currently covers the Buffalo Public Schools beat. She previously covered the Williamsville school district and was a full-time education reporter for five years prior to joining The News. She graduated from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

@BNschoolzone |

Deidre Williams

Deidre Williams

Deidre Williams began working for The Buffalo News in 1999 and currently covers Buffalo Public Schools. She formerly was a suburban reporter on the Northtowns beat and has been a cityside reporter covering communities since 2004. Williams has a mass communications degree from Towson University.

@DeidreWilliamsB |