Welcome to Laurie Goodman's blog. I use this space to share news and opinions about education and schools in Ridgewood, the state of New Jersey and the nation, in addition to other issues I'm personally interested in. I invite you to share your thoughts, feelings, questions or opinions, too, by posting comments on any blog entry. Please observe basic courtesy -- keep your comments focused on issues, no personal attacks or bullying, please. Contact me directly at: lauriegood@mac.com

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Free speech, part 2

Thought I would reprint parts of an email conversation I've been having, in response to my previous comments about public comments:

[the first writer had said that the BOE's public comment policy was designed to suppress free speech]

I hear what you are saying, but consider: what if the policy is not to suppress free speech but rather to establish a structure for meetings of the board while simultaneously fulfilling our legal obligation to support district staff? Would we be failing (legally) in the latter if we allowed a meeting attendee to publicly criticize (or actually defame) a teacher for something that allegedly happened in a classroom last week? I think so.

What about this analogy: when a visitor is in my home, if they want to start insulting my kid or my husband, don’t I have the right to tell them I don’t allow that? Don’t I have the right – even with our country’s freedom of speech – to try and stop them? (And, yes, I know the Ed Center is technically the public's "home" because the public pays the taxes that pay for it...is freedom of speech determined by the ownership of the locale? Or the "ownership" of the meeting...Haven't thought about it...indulge me this analogy to try and make my point!)

Did you know that there is no legal obligation to allow public comments at Board of Ed meetings? The Open Public Meetings Act says that we must meet in public, period. It is the tradition that boards invite public comment, but it is not a legal mandate.

I agree with you that the policy in question can make people think that the Board doesn’t want to deal with confrontation or dissent. But why must the only other choice be to whisper in the market? Is there nothing in between? If you think a teacher sucks, you are welcome and encouraged to “confront” the principal (the teacher’s supervisor) and tell him/her how you feel. Or tell the superintendent how you feel. That chain of command will surely get you real action, as opposed to telling the Board at a public meeting. The Board is prohibited from getting involved in personnel issues, until they have run through the chain. A parade of 500 citizens can stand at the mic and say the teacher sucks or, worse, that he did something egregious. We aren't allowed to do anything about it until it has been brought to the superintendent without being resolved.

So you're right, it can look bad, regardless of the law. And the pre-comment statement is written with a slightly condescending/paternalistic tone (in my opinion). Dealing with that perception is a challenge. Personally, I wish we could have more of a give-and-take or conversation at our meetings. But based on policy and the laws, I don’t think that conversation is ever going to happen at Board meetings. That’s one of the reasons I’ve advocated for other “town hall” type meetings, set-up specifically for people to talk to us. We did a couple last month for the budget and they were quite successful. Do you think if we held school-based town halls, or issue-based town halls, that anyone would come?


Anonymous said...

I think one of the disturbing developments over the past year or two involving the BoE is a bunker mentality that pervades every public meeting and/or discussion involving potentially controversial issues. Despite its propriety as determined by legal counsel, the policy statement on "free speech" is defensive, anti-social and does nothing to nurture the partnership with the citizenry that is critical for the BoE to serve efectively.

In times of national and local social tumult, when people are overly frustrated at many things in their lives, does Mr. Vallerini really think that the best path is to piss off everybody in the room? Why polarize the constituency?

The BoE has forgotten where its allegiances lie. You work for the citizens and especially, the younger citizens in this town. You are not there to protect the superintendant or his staff. You are not there to protect the teachers. (That's what the teachers' union is for.) You are there for us, plain and simple.

I'm hopeful that the Board somehow regains its bearings and reaffirms a commitment to educational excellence that every Ridgewood expects. Right now, the Board appears to have been subsumed into the educational bureaucracy that exists at Cottage Place. This is not the job each member was elected to do.

And with his policy statement, Vallerini did nothing to dispel this perception.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, Laurie, I’ve got to disagree with you on a couple of your points. First, I know it sound trite, but just because something’s legal doesn’t make it right. The Board is elected to represent the community in its oversight of the school district; of course it should allow and even welcome comments from that community at its meetings. The same point leads me to disagree with your analogy. You represent the administration as your family, but the Board should be concerned with the citizens who elected them and consider them as their “family”, giving their needs first priority. Obviously this situation involves a personnel matter and should have been handled delicately. It seems to me though the Travell community was not given sufficient notice or the opportunity to go through all the bureaucratic channels; in fact, it looks like this was being pushed through under the radar. A few months ago you had a post lamenting the lack of anybody stepping up to run against Bob Hutton, and I read a very good response stating that the problem was the perception the Board seemed too eager to protect the status quo, rubber-stamped everything the administration wanted, and disliked community input or criticism. This is an example of why that perception exists.

Laurie said...

Hey, I'm with you on the bunker mentality...I've criticized it in the past. It's a more difficult phenomenon than I expected...I spend considerable time and energy trying to act outside of that mentality -- with this blog, for example. I think all of the board members and superintendent were more accessible than usual during the lead-up to this past budget vote. Small improvements have been made. But when it comes to public comment at meetings, that dynamic is problematic, for sure. I don't have the answers right now but I appreciate the chance to have a dialogue with you and a chance to think out loud.

I do want write more about the tenure/public input process as well as board member responsibility...but right now I need to get to work. More later...

Anonymous said...

there's a bunker mentality over the "past year or two?" It has been longer than that my friend!!! I've been here since 1989 and the more things change the more the stay the same. I say hats off to Laurie for trying to buck the trend and treat the public with respect and be willing to listen and talk with people. Thank you!!!!

Anonymous said...

"I do want write more about the tenure/public input process as well as board member responsibility...but right now I need to get to work. More later..."

Presumably, you can now return to finish your thoughts on this topic?

Laurie said...

I did write about tenure as a separate post on May 7 ("Tenure Talk"). I left my opinion out -- which is that I am opposed to the tenure laws. I think a district should be able to create its own policies for hiring, compensation, review and renewal.

As for the school board member's job responsibilities, I want to share the state law job description as outlined in the code of ethics that we each must swear to. I think some people will find it enlightening, interesting and possibly frustrating. I will post that later tonight, I promise.