ELLSWORTH — Described as a return to normalcy by School Board members, the public will no longer be able to comment during board meetings and workshops via email or on Facebook where meetings are livestreamed. The full board unanimously approved both proposals on May 11.
“At times, the comments on there have been completely unnecessary,” Chairwoman Jennifer Alexander said on public comments on Facebook during board meetings.
Board members do not monitor Facebook comments during the meeting, but because comments were allowed, questions were posted anyway, she added.
In addition, since meetings are streamed through the Ellsworth High School Facebook page, language should be appropriate for that age group, and board Vice Chairwoman Abigail Miller said that has not been the case.
“The School Department protocols are to remove comments that include profanity or harassment,” Alexander noted after the meeting. She added that the topic arose after the board learned “that at times the comments were of a negative nature, oftentimes including name calling and not respecting other comments,” with some negative comments directed toward school staff and “inappropriate and derogatory discussions” between viewers at times unrelated to the meeting agenda.
The decision came as the board discussed following in the City Council’s footsteps in stepping back from measures introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic that permitted public comments via email during meetings. But after Maine eased capacity restrictions effective April 24, councilors opened the second-floor auditorium in City Hall for overflow attendance and public comments. Meetings are streamed via Zoom and members of the public in the overflow space can comment from City Hall via the platform. But mostly, those wishing to speak walk down to the council chambers to speak, in person and in turn.
“I think the email [protocol] has served its purpose,” Superintendent Dan Higgins said of the School Board’s decision to end that avenue for public comment.
The motion to require in-person public comments was combined with turning off Facebook comments. Board members still welcome emails from community members, Alexander pointed out, but they will not be read out loud, as has happened for the past year, and board members will not be checking their email accounts during meetings.
At the May 11 meeting, the board also unanimously approved first-year, second-year and third-year probationary teacher contracts, along with continuing teacher contracts. Members also approved a 2021-22 administrator contract granting a 3 percent salary increase.
“When you look at the pandemic year, I think 3 percent for this year is a very fair wage increase,” Higgins said. Administrators did not receive additional pay, as teachers did, for work performed above and beyond normal expectations.
But board members want to discuss further the salary structure for teachers and administrators. Current negotiated contracts contain specified percentage-based increases for all teachers, while some board members are interested in a merit-based approach. In addition, board member Kelly McKenney noted that no written evaluations of administrators had been submitted for salary and contract negotiations.
“That hasn’t happened, and that’s a concern,” she said.
The board is scheduled to meet for a workshop on May 20, while its next regularly scheduled meeting is set for June 8. The meeting will start at 6 p.m.