HARVARD — When should school committees start? At 5:30 p.m., to capture a local crowd with an earlier bedtime? At 7 p.m., to allow time for those who work out-of-town to get home, eat and attend the meetings.
And what about the audience and public-at-large? Whether they’re viewing at home on cable TV or seated in the audience to observe or speak, what’s best for them?
Such was the debate Monday night at the School Committee meeting when committee member Patty Wenger, a registered nurse, suggested the committee try earlier meeting start times. Normally begun at 7 o’clock, it is typical for meetings to run till 10 p.m.
“I’m fading at 9 o’clock at night,” said Wenger. “An earlier start time is something we can look at.” A 5:30 start time is “more doable,” in her opinion, and would permit greater participation from school administrators, teachers, students “and a lot who come to these meetings.”
Wenger said she’d favor trying it, as did committee member SusanMary Redinger, who was absent for Monday’s meeting.
Committee member Kirsten Wright said she, too, thought an earlier start time would be a “good idea.”
Wright said the “cons” against the notion are obvious — working families and the public want to come. “It wouldn’t be as convenient.” But to accommodate “high interest topics” that are likely to fill the audience, Wright suggested those issues be scheduled later in the evening.
But committee member Piali De said it was a game changing proposition. “It excludes people like me that do more than 9-to-5. I’d never have run for it [the School Committee]. I think you will rule out the kind of people who live the life I live.”
“Never for a second would I entertain it. I struggle to get her at 7. The disadvantage is you rule out a segment of the population,” said De. “From a democracy point of view, I just can’t go along. I think that’s the downside.”
Wright asked if De sees the 7 p.m. start time as something “cast in stone.”
“When I was asked to consider to run, my first question was to ask “When does it meet?” said De. “If I heard it was 5:30, I’d say ‘No, thank you.”
But Wenger asked that it be tried for this year “and we can reevaluate.”
De warned that before the Town Caucus, which occurs in February before the early April Town Elections, it should be well established what schedule the committee intends to meet.
In the spring, one seat is up for election on the School Committee, and it’s the seat presently filled by De. De has repeatedly stated that she will not seek another three-year term.
“If you want to do this for the winter months,” De acquiesced. “I just know I could never have been here for a 5:30 meeting.” De had long been an engineer at Raytheon but has now launched her own company in Shirley, tamping down at least the commute time to work.
“From a cultural point of view, you get into habits,” said De. “From a democracy point of view for working parents who want to be here and watch, it’s disempowering.”
Wenger noted that service on the School Committee – as is the case for many boards – can often require or strongly suggest attendance at day meetings of subcommittees, for example. What’s the difference, Wenger wondered.
“We are skirting democracy. There is that balance. There are reasons why meetings are televised and there are open meetings,” said De. “We don’t need to debate this.” De offered the earlier start time be tried out for the next 2-3 months, as long as the “word on the street” isn’t that the move is permanent. “I personally don’t care,” said De.
School Committee Chairman Keith Cheveralls called for input from Interim School Superintendent Joseph Connelly as “someone who’s probably sat at more meetings than us.”
“You’re talking to someone whose wife is convinced that for 30 years I’ve looked for meetings to go to,” laughed Connelly. For the working throng, 7 o’clock “seems to be a reasonable time to get out to committee meetings,” he said. “I’ve dealt with building committees and Finance Committees. They’ve always been 7 o’clock meetings.”
However, cablecast meetings allow for time-shifting and later playbacks after “kids are home from soccer practice.”
“I can see Piali’s argument,” said Connelly. Annually, after elections, “You should talk as a new committee when you want to meet and what works best.”
Cheveralls noted, “We don’t exactly have people banging on our door to run for School Committee.”
“We have to factor in all things in to find that optimal balance without shooting ourselves in the foot,” he said.
Cheveralls has noted that the School Committee meetings typically run three hours “and we’ve had to make some pretty tough decisions at 10 o’clock at night. I don’t care what they say — you’re not at your best. And things have gotten perhaps a little more tense [at that hour].”
Cheveralls suggested the committee impose a three-hour time limit on meetings unless, similarly to the Board of Selectmen, there is a consensus on continuing the meeting into a fourth hour.
Instead of voting on the time shift, the committee agreed to loosely give the earlier time a try with a note in the minutes clearly stating that it’s a trial run.
The committee wrapped its business Monday night at 9:49 p.m. The committee meets again on Aug. 22 at 5:30 p.m., presuming the Town Hall meeting room is available.