The initiative is called "Coffee and Conversations" and is an effort "to help open the lines of communication between board members and the community," according to the School District press release.
But is it a good idea?
The proposal was made during the Batavia Public School District 101 School Board meeting Tuesday night by Board President Cathy Dremel.
“We want to hear from our stakeholders,” Dremel said. “It’s important that we gather viewpoints from members of the community so we can better understand their priorities. To help facilitate this process, we would like to offer the opportunity to have coffee and a conversation with a board member.”
The Batavia School Board — which meets just once a month compared to twice a month in Geneva — got an earful from residents on a variety of issues during a two-hour-plus public-comment period at Tuesday's meeting. Many residents spoke on the topic of a $13 million plan to build athletic fields the district is planning to build over time at Batavia High School.
Others were concerned about the loss of the school's arboretum — a part of the $13 million long-range plan. Members of the public speaking at Tuesday's meeting told the board that that the arboretum should be saved. They noted that many of the existing trees were donated in memory of lost loved ones, according to an article in the Daily Herald, and argued that losing the arboretum was opposite Batavia's reputation as a Tree City USA.
At the same meeting, some parents addressed the School Board on the elimination of art and music rooms at H.C. Storm School.
According to a press release issued Thursday, the Coffee and Conversations initiative will give community members the opportunity to meet in an informal setting with up to two board members at a time. The meeting must be limited to two board members because a greater number might make a quorum of the full board or subcommittee and in such a case would be in violation of the Open Meetings Act.
At the Coffee and Conversations meetings, "stakeholders" will have an opportunity to "discuss their perspectives on the current topics concerning Batavia Public School District 101," the release said.
Unlike the public comments segment at regular board meetings, the Coffee and Conversations sessions will allow stakeholders to speak beyond the time constraints typically faced when addressing the board in a public forum.
“We recognize and share the frustrations in trying to communicate within the confines of the Open Meetings Act,” Dremel said. “Sometimes all of your thoughts can’t be shared in a three-minute window.”
As a clarification, the three-minute window is not a requirement of the Open Meetings Act. The School Board can allow residents to speak for any length of time, but many school boards limit a speaker so that the meetings don't turn into marathons. There are similar time limits imposed at Geneva School District 304 School Board meetings.
Such time limits are not enforced at all public bodies, however. The mayor or acting chairman of Geneva City Council and Committee of the Whole meetings, for example, often invite public commentary and rarely impose time limits to speakers.
Dremel noted that board members who host Coffee and Conversations sessions will primarily be in listening mode rather than conducting official board business.
“When board members act in this capacity, we will not be problem solving, or doing the work of the board. We will be collecting information as individuals so we have a wider spectrum of knowledge to make informed decisions,” Dremel said.
The meetings might be a good way to listen to people's concerns, develop interpersonal communication between board members and constituents and cut down on the time of lengthy board meetings.
On the flip side, conversations are held off the record and outside a public venue, where there are no video cameras, recorders or media.
Community members interested in setting up a Coffee and Conversations session can contact the board member with whom they would like to speak through the district’s website at: http://www.bps101.net/board-education-members.