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Central York: Should nonresidents be allowed to speak?

Central York High School in Springettsbury Township, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

A proposed policy change at Central York School District opened up debate on whether people who are not district residents should be allowed to speak during public comment at meetings.

Only residents can comment — with some exceptions, including employees and representatives of community groups — at the public meetings, under district policy. 

But some school board members questioned Monday why there was a distinction at all.

Board member Jane Johnson said if there were a reason to keep nonresidents from speaking, she would be okay with it, but "I don't think people would come here unless they had a good reason to."

The discussion arose from a proposed policy change that would no longer require residents to state their addresses. Since the district now records its meetings, their private information would be public record.

In exchange, any community member wishing to address the school board would have to state they are a resident.

Michael Alessandroni, a Central York School District parent and principal at Northeastern Middle School, says "we have never, ever felt that our two students have ever been unsafe," during a town-hall-style meeting to discuss school safety following last week's threats, allegedly made by a 13-year-old middle school student, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018.  John A. Pavoncello photo

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"So procedurally, if somebody identifies (himself) as being outside the district, it’s your job to either shut them down or somebody in administration or board to say, 'no, I want to hear what they have to say?'" asked board member Karl Peckmann at a May meeting, addressing board President Eric Wolfgang.

"Ideally, we’re not bound by residents who are not part of the district," Wolfgang said.

It's not unusual for school districts to have a policy to restrict comment to district residents and taxpayers, and the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act allows the limitation.

On Monday, board member Joseph Gothie said his preference would be to remove the residency requirement. As a board member since 2016, he said he's never seen any major issues with nonresidents commenting, and it hasn't always been enforced.

Gothie and others mentioned there would be many cases in which they would need to speak — for example, a divorced parent who no longer lives in the district or community members with expertise on an issue relevant to Central.

But board Vice President Gregory Lewis said when the board had 20-some odd people saying it needed a dance program, many nonresidents spoke.

When it comes to district programs, he doesn't care what someone from Eastern York has to say, Lewis said.

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That doesn't happen often, Johnson said, and crowd control and amount of time speaking could be worked out so that meetings don't get out of hand.

Board member Michael Wagner agreed with Lewis that first and foremost, residents should be encouraged to speak. But he said it can be beneficial to hear from nonresidents, such as when community members showed up to discuss transgender issues. 

A licensed psychiatrist who was not a resident was shut down during that discussion, and the board could have benefited from his insight, Gothie said.

"When he was sent away without an opportunity to speak, I felt disappointed," he said.

Board member Veronica Gemma agreed that was a loss to the entire room and reinforced that issues in which too many nonresidents speak are rare. Her only request is for anyone who speaks to state which district they are from, and Wagner agreed.

Wolfgang proposed a subcommittee to discuss how to revise the policy, and Lewis, Johnson, Gemma and Gothie volunteered.

He expects further discussion at the board's meeting on Aug. 12.