Why Open Forums Matter: Reflections on the BOE’s World Cafe Event [Opinion]

As an attendee of the Collingswood Board of Ed’s World Cafe Meeting on October 3, 2017, my experience was that it was not just a hosted conversation, as it was billed, but also a controlled conversation.

Many Participants Were Sceptical Due To The Rigidity Of The Agenda

As opposed to a more open public forum- in which anyone may show up and speak up; instead interested individuals first had to register for a limited number of tickets via a website. At the event, participants talked in small groups about three pre-chosen topics: outside space, indoor space, and stadium. Table hosts (mostly board members) recorded participants’ comments on posters, slotting community feedback into four categories: positives, challenges, alternatives, and questions.

Though one neighbor told me she snuck out after the first session, frustrated by the rigidity of the event, most participants moved from one table and topic to the next at the ring of a bell. At the end of the three timed sessions, posters were displayed and participants were instructed to walk around the room and place the three stickers they received upon arrival beside their favorite poster comments.

Because we were broken into groups and conversations were timed and limited to assigned issues, it was difficult to get a true pulse on the community as a whole. Also, while participants could ask questions, those questions were written on the posters rather than definitively resolved. Questions were more productively addressed in the public comment section at the very end of the night: a component required only because a board quorum was present.  

Specific Issues From The Table Discussions

Stadium

On the topic of the stadium, the posters reflected concerns about environmental and health risks posed by turf. There was confusion about the efficacy of field reorientation as well as worry about the cost of the project. Participants wanted to know if the Board had gotten competitive bids and done scientific studies. Some asked wanted more information about the safety of the stadium at present. Comments supported the idea of a new sound system and lighting, the possibility of more competitive play, the addition of track lanes and making the stadium ADA compliant.

Outdoor Space

On the issue of outdoor space, poster comments noted interest in sponsors and grants. Others wanted added cameras and more information about the environmental impact of the improvements. Comments expressed concerns about liability, as well as the cost and safety of materials being used. Others noted that community members were being asked to pay for improvements that the district had not really quantified yet. There was support for more outside time for students, more green space and community access to playgrounds.

Indoor Space

On the topic of indoor space, poster comments expressed interest in a space for teams such as Odyssey of the Mind and for the 18-21 year old program. Other comments noted interest in moving district offices out of the Zane North basement. People wanted to know more about how access and scheduling would work for these new spaces. Comments also addressed the need for clear numbers on how many student would use the 18-21 year old space and how much this project on its own might cost. An interest in green possibilities (solar panels or roof gardens) was noted. Other comments revealed concerns about the impact on traffic and how this would affect the surrounding neighborhood.

Taken altogether, some common refrains were clear from the posters. People would like to see this proposal broken into smaller parts, with the opportunity to vote on each part after getting fuller information for each segment. While a shocking number of stickers were placed beside the comment “eliminate sports,” more comments simply expressed a desire to focus on academics rather than extra-curricular pursuits. The call for more studies, more information, more quantified details was apparent across the posters. An interest in grants or sponsorship appeared many times too.

The poster comments only reflect one night’s session and even then, only the ideas of those able to attend and only ideas on these assigned topics. I look forward to a true public forum in which community members are able to speak more freely, in a less managed and choreographed way. While it is important to keep any meeting on task, it is also incumbent that leaders not be high-handed in their facilitation. Nothing gains public trust as much as demonstrating some trust in the public.  

 

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Kate D

President Kate Delany is the author of two books of poetry—Reading Darwin (Poets Corner Press) and Ditching (Aldrich Press). Her prose and poetry have appeared in many magazines and journals, such as Art Times, Barrelhouse, Jabberwock Review, Room and Poetry Quarterly. She holds a MA in English from Rutgers-Camden and a BA in English, as well as BA in Art History, from Chestnut Hill College. Kate has over a decade’s worth of experience teaching college English, both literature and writing to diverse student populations. A resident of Collingswood since 2007 and the parent of two Collingswood public school students, Kate is a member of Sustainable Collingswood and leads the Collingswood Chicken Uprising. She is the school liaison for the Collingswood Community Habitat Project, the parent coordinator of the Garfield Green Team and the Membership Chair of the Garfield Elementary PTA. In writing, in the classroom and via community organizing, Kate is passionate about facilitating conversations that matter and advocating for sustainability and social justice.