The Lafayette Parish School Board is taking steps to become more efficient in how it conducts its business: creating committees and possibly streamlining its agenda and installing a new electronic voting system.
It’s all designed to curtail meetings that have lasted four hours or more.
The new board took office in January and quickly took action to create committees — finance, facilities and executive — so members can receive information from staff and make recommendations for full board consideration. The board also is exploring other changes, such as streamlining its agenda and installing a new electronic system that displays votes and the agenda items so the public can follow along.
“We’re still in the experimental stage,” board president Tommy Angelle said of the changes.
Prior to the current board taking office, an executive committee existed. The creation of additional committees is intended to help streamline the meetings of the full board.
It’s Angelle’s second term on the board and his first time as its president. In this role, he leads the meetings and maintains order.
While in the past, the board has allowed for discussion of items on the agenda for introduction, Angelle has ended that practice.
“In the past, we’d get bogged down on discussion in the introduction time,” Angelle said. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but two weeks later, we’d have the same discussion again when it’s under action.”
During the meetings, Angelle has encouraged board members to contact staff members directly with questions they may have about introductory items so they’ll be prepared to make a decision when the issue comes up again on the action agenda two weeks later.
The purpose was to streamline meetings, Angelle said. Meetings under the past board, on which Angelle and the other re-elected board member, Tehmi Chassion, both served, often lasted four hours or longer.
Changes to the agenda and installing a new electronic voting-and-agenda system are on the back burner for now but still on the board’s radar, Angelle said.
The board’s current electronic system frequently lags and lately, voice votes have been taken when glitches in the system have slowed down the meeting.
Angelle said he thinks different software could help improve the flow of the meetings, but that decision and expense will have to wait for now.
The board has major decisions on its plate in the coming days and weeks. The board is expected to interview and possibly select a new superintendent on Wednesday, and the budget review of the general fund begins May 12.
Adjustments to the agenda to streamline routine business portions of the meeting are also likely. Now, the board takes single votes on routine items, such as approval of prior meeting minutes and finance reports. Other school districts consolidate routine business into a consent agenda that’s approved in a single vote.
Committee chairmen Jeremy Hidalgo and Justin Centanni both said they find committee meetings allow for additional time for public comment. During regular school board meetings, the public is allowed to make comment related to action items and that time is limited to three minutes. The board also allows for comments before it adjourns, and that time is also limited to three minutes.
“I feel that we’re able to receive more input from the public than during a regular meeting because there are no time limits,” said Centanni, who chairs the finance committee.
When the committee structure was initially proposed, some residents wondered if the public would be cut out of the process because they may not have the time to attend additional meetings. The committee structure has presented a challenge for the leadership of Lafayette Parish Association of Educators to attend more meetings, but the changes are a work in progress, said Rodolfo Espinoza, the association’s president. He teaches at Lafayette High.
“I think it’s the board’s prerogative to make changes that they feel are necessary,” he added. “I feel that the board is attempting to be as forthright as they can. This is being done in good faith.”
Additionally, the committee structure enables ample time for board members to receive and vet information on particular issues, facilities chairman Hidalgo said.
Espinoza said the informal nature of the committee meetings has enabled the public to receive answers to their questions, which isn’t the case during regular board meetings. During board meetings, members don’t have to take questions or respond to questions asked by the public, and frequently, the public is directed to contact a staff member after the meeting.
“I think a very important part as they move forward is getting agendas out as early as possible, so that can be a bit improved. I think it’s a work in progress,” Espinoza said.
The state’s open meetings law requires that agendas and meeting notices be posted at least 24 hours in advance of government meetings. Frequently, the School Board’s regular meeting agenda is posted the Friday before its Wednesday meeting, though amendments and revisions are frequently made up to the day before the meeting.
Centanni suggested an email notification system that the public could subscribe to for meeting notice alerts. While meeting information is posted on the school system’s website, the notification system could provide another layer of transparency.
The finance committee meeting has drawn large crowds and comments from the public in recent weeks. More recently, the committee received budget projections and suggested cuts to manage an estimated $16 million shortfall from chief financial officer Billy Guidry. And employees voiced their concerns about the recommendations during that meeting.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.