Mary Ann and I went to a public hearing in Concord before the Senate Education Committee on proposed amendments to HB 356. These amendments would grant additional authority to the Commissioner of Education and make organizational changes to the Department of Education. Mary Ann testified, but since this was my first public hearing, I decided to attend as an observer.
Going to the hearing was both easier and more rewarding than I anticipated. The drive took only about an hour each way, entirely on highways and with little traffic. There was plenty of inexpensive parking available near the Legislative Office Building where the hearing was held. I discovered that I didn’t need to clear an entire day to attend a hearing, as I feared. We left after breakfast and returned home by lunchtime.
When we entered the hearing room, we were asked to sign in and indicate whether we supported the amendments or opposed them, and also whether we planned to testify. So, I was pleased that even though I didn’t plan to speak, my presence and opinion were still noted. And the sign in sheet determined the order by which people were called to testify; no need to stand in line or jockey for position for a turn at the microphone.
Commissioner Edelblut spoke first, so I had a valuable opportunity to observe him in action and hear from him directly. There was testimony both in favor of the amendments and in opposition, though the vast majority of the people who testified were in opposition. A variety of people testified: parents, educators, a former state representative, a former state government department head, lobbyists, and others concerned with public school education. Not everyone was a polished speaker, though clearly everyone had spent time gathering their thoughts. I left thinking that testifying was very doable, and that I didn’t need public speaking experience to share my opinion.
I left the hearing more inspired to be politically active. It was gratifying to chat with other people from throughout the state, and corny as it sounds, to feel aligned with others in causes bigger than myself.
Ironically, however, it was the conduct of the hearing itself, rather than the substance, that most influenced my desire to return to Concord. This experience demonstrated to me how easy it would be to deprive all of us of the opportunity for meaningful participation in our government. The day before the hearing, I called the committee staff person to obtain the text of the proposed amendments. She told me that the text was not yet available, as it was still changing, but would be given out at the hearing. Really? To make matters worse, on the hearing day, the amendments were not made available until just before the hearing started. Thus, we had barely a minute to review 15 pages of material, even though many people had arrived 30 minutes or more prior to the hearing, and could have been reading while they waited. If the committee really wanted public input, the hearing should have been scheduled for a date after the language of the amendments was made available to the public.
Moreover, the room where the hearing was held was too small to accommodate all the people present. Some people who planned to testify couldn’t get into the hearing room to reach the sign up sheet. Others standing in the hallway were unable to hear the testimony offered. Attendees requested that the hearing be moved to a larger room, but the chairperson of the Education Committee denied the request with no explanation. The chairperson also cut off the testimony of two different speakers and refused to allow them to finish their remarks. He said he did this because their comments were not relevant to the amendments. yet he allowed another speaker who supported the amendments to speak at great length about organizational changes he had made a while ago in an entirely different state agency. Clearly the chairperson was silencing only those people who stated they perceived a political agenda underlying the proposed Department of Education amendments.
In summary, please think seriously about carpooling to Concord for a public hearing on an issue that you care about, not only will you have no regrets, but it’s likely to inspire you.
Rachel Kurshan April 25, 2017
Here’s proof that going to Concord really can make a difference (along with our emails, letters, and phone calls). The Education Committee heard us. The result is that a committee will be established to study the organizational structure of the Department of Education and the duties of the commissioner. When you recall that initially there was not even going to be a public hearing on the bill as first proposed, yes, we’ve come a long way.