When the state education commissioner stops at WNED’s studios in Buffalo on Thursday night, some educators and community advocates worry that the event will have been staged in an attempt to limit the type of noisy criticism he has encountered in other areas of the state.
“It just seems like it is a very controlled environment,” said West Seneca Superintendent Mark Crawford. “I’m not sure that they’re interested in hearing any dissenting voices.”
The two-hour forum – the first hour of which will be aired live on WNED and WBFO at 6 p.m. – will include questions and comments submitted by audience members but chosen by WNED staff. Tickets have been limited to 300 because of the size of the studio audience and have been distributed through local school districts, by a Buffalo parent’s group and by lottery.
It will contrast with a forum last week in Jamestown, where an animated audience was about double the size and anybody could sign up to make their points directly to Commissioner John B. King Jr.
“We look at it as a point of him just shutting out the community and not really wanting to hear the community’s voice,” said Shaketa Redden, an organizer with VOICE-Buffalo.
State officials say the fact that tonight’s event will be broadcast on public television and radio will allow thousands more to watch or listen, and that the same number of questions can be posed during the two-hour event whether the audience has 300 people or 1,000. About 25 to 40 people have been able to speak at previous forums held across the state in recent weeks, and Regent Robert Bennett said he expects a similar number to be fielded tonight by King and himself.
“The number of people isn’t anywhere near as important as the nature of the questions, which, both John and I understand the anger and the frustration in the questions,” Bennett said. “The formats have varied across the state.”
King has crisscrossed the state in recent weeks to discuss the state’s educational reform agenda, which includes the implementation of new learning standards known as the Common Core, standardized tests and other initiatives. The WNED forum is the fifth at a public broadcasting station.
The meetings have varied in size and intensity, with more than 1,500 people attending a meeting in Long Island that was marked by shouts and boos aimed at King, according to an account in Newsday.
At Jamestown High School last week, moderators from the League of Women Voters kept speakers to a strict two-minute time limit and prohibited audience applause and responses in an effort to fit 40 speakers into the time allotted.
Local education activists have expressed concern that the WNED event will not be held in a location where the general public can attend. Instead, each area school district was allotted three tickets. The District Parent Coordinating Council of Buffalo, which is helping to host the event, received 40 tickets. The remaining seats were distributed through a random lottery.
“We asked for a public forum, and what we get in response is a contrived meeting with a tightly controlled agenda, a handpicked crowd and predetermined questions,” said Assemblyman Sean Ryan, a Buffalo Democrat. “This seems more like propaganda and less like a public exchange of ideas.”
Neither King nor Bennett will see the questions before they are posed, said Megan Wagner of WNED. All audience members will be encouraged to submit questions.
“They do not have to pre-submit questions,” Wagner said. “And the questions are being selected by WNED and WBFO staff to ensure a variety of topics are addressed and to avoid redundancy.”