Lack of public comment at Kiona-Benton City School District starts debate

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldNovember 27, 2012 

Absence of public comment at a Kiona-Benton City School District meeting Monday night led to a heated debate between school board members prior to the meeting.

Board members Dan Raap and Jill Renz-Whitman said it's common for the board to not allow public comment at board meetings immediately after school vacation periods, such as the recent Thanksgiving holiday.

"This meeting was primarily to deal with the budget," Raap said after the meeting and before the board went into a scheduled executive session.

But board members Wayne Elston and Tim Cook protested the lack of public comment, saying the decision to remove it from the meeting's agenda should have been a decision by the board.

"You can't keep doing this," Cook said as he debated with Raap and Renz-Whitman before the meeting.

The meeting's agenda was laid out last week by board Chairman Charles Gray, who was absent from the meeting to attend to personal business, Raap said.

However, Amber Farley, a science teacher at Kiona-Benton Middle School, approached the board about making a presentation to the board. She collected signatures from 65 teachers in the district seeking the reinstatement of substitute teachers Avone Williamson and Vic Engelhart.

"Vic was my go-to," Farley said regarding her need at times for a substitute teacher.

Both substitutes were dismissed in March after an incident at the middle school when Williamson disciplined several children in an unruly class, including a son of Renz-Whitman. The district has not explained why the substitutes were dismissed, though Superintendent Rom Castilleja said it was for cause. Castilleja and Renz-Whitman have denied that Renz-Whitman had any involvement in Williamson's or Engelhart's removal.

Cook and Elston said they wanted to hear Farley's presentation, but Raap and Renz-Whitman wanted to stick with the agenda as it was.

"This isn't unusual," Raap said after the meeting, adding there will likely be a meeting in December that will be brief and not have public comment.

Elston and Cook said it wasn't appropriate for Gray to single-handedly remove public comment from the agenda and it was never run past them.

"I'm going to tell you all, you want change on this board, there are three people," Cook said to members of the public gathered in the room for the meeting while pointing toward Raap and Renz-Whitman and toward Gray's empty seat. Some people in the crowd clapped.

Also Monday:

Board members discussed the district's policy on participation points in grading.

Cook said he'd met with Kiona-Benton City High School Spanish teacher Irene Schmick about his daughter making up classwork after missing days while away with her family, leading to questions of what she could make up because of inconsistencies between district and state policy.

"I'm not saying policies have to change, only that there's inconsistencies," Cook said.

Castilleja said state code called for students to have the opportunity to make up any portion of their grade if they missed it because of an excused absence.

Raap voiced interest in allowing students to make up work regardless of their absence, as it gives more opportunity for student success.

"I'd like to be as helpful as possible to students," he said.

The board did not come to a decision on any changes to the policy.

-- Ty Beaver 582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com

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