Standing room only

Melissa Stagnaro

My back is killing me today. In fact, it’s been bothering me since Wednesday night, when I had the privilege of spending three and a half incredibly long hours sitting on the floor during a Norwich City School Board meeting.

Yep, I was in the equivalent of lawn seating at the event. Which was fine for Dave Matthews last weekend, but less than desirable for a school board meeting.

Prior to the protracted meeting, I was under the impression that I had more than adequate padding on my posterior. I’ve been forced to reconsider that assumption however. Normally, I’d be ecstatic about something like that. But my bonier-than-realized behind enjoyed the experience even less than my back.

But still, I figure I got off easy. There were plenty of people who stood  lining the back of the district conference room throughout the entire meeting. From recent experience (the aforementioned DMB concert) I know I wouldn’t have made it if I’d tried the same.

I know I spend what some would say is far too much time griping about school board meetings. But we all need an outlet for the frustration in our lives. And unfortunately for you, my dear readers, this is mine.

Primarily because my family and friends have forbade me from discussing the topic in their saintly presence. And I fear their retribution if I fail to comply.

It’s no secret that I’m not exactly a fan of board of education meetings. Unfortunately, since I cover five of Chenango County’s nine school districts, it’s kind of an occupational hazard.

But I don’t have to like it.

It’s not the meetings themselves that bother me – although they do cut into my social life – it’s the dysfunction. I know that’s what sells newspapers, but believe me, I don’t revel in the drama. I much prefer peace and harmony, to conflict and strife.

Unfortunately, there is much more of the latter than the former.

My frustration is only exasperated by the fact that much of the drama is if the participants own making. Usually a combination of poor communication, inarticulation and a lack of common courtesy.

Something as simple as when during the meeting public comment is scheduled can ignite a meeting, turning the tide from civil to nasty. (Why on Earth you’d want someone to sit an stew for three hours over something they are already upset about is beyond me. Unless, that is, you actually want to incite riot.) Failure to provide a sufficient copies of agendas and other handouts is also an irritation for those who take time out of their lives to attend these types of events.

Ditto, when you fail to provide adequate seating.

Because all of these things to contrive to make people feel like their elected officials don’t want them to attend meetings, don’t want their input and that and don’t value their opinion. Even when that isn’t the case.

Tempers were hot over some issues at Wednesday night’s meeting. But they were hotter still after people spent hours standing, waiting for their turn to speak. Is it really that hard to put out a few extra seats and print off a few extra copies of the handouts, when you know attendance has been up?

It’s not me I’m concerned about. I arrived just as the meeting was starting, so to a certain extent I felt sitting on the floor was kind of my penance. And I know if I asked for a seat, if any of us had, someone would have been kind enough to fetch us one. The same would have been the case if I needed a copy of something. The problem is not everyone attends as many meetings as I do. What if that was your first experience at a board meeting? Think of the lasting impression that would leave. Not only of the board, but of the entire district.

Norwich is by no means alone in this offense. I’ve attended school board meetings in Oxford where not enough seating is available. (Although the space they hold their meetings is larger, and stacks of chairs usually line the back of the room.) Guilford’s old town hall was so tiny that unless they cleaned out a bay in the highway garage, there wasn’t enough room to provide seating for all those who attended their town meetings.

My purpose in writing this isn’t to blast Norwich for making me sit on the floor. Sure, I might whine a little about it, but I suffered no permanent damage from the experience. I just hope this serves as a reminder to the district, as well as to other elected boards, that while seating might seem like a minor detail at a meeting where important topics are being discussed and critical decisions being made, it is important that your constituents know their participation is valued. Whether they agree with your stand on things or not, by attending these meetings, they are showing they care. They are taking an active role in their community or school.

A little common courtesy can go a long way toward building bridges. The lack of it is a sure-fire way of burning them.

Follow me on Twitter … @evesunmelissa.