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.
[4/5/11 NOTE: THE ABOVE FACT WAS GIVEN TO ME BY NJ SCHOOL BOARDS ASSOCIATION IN 2009. I HAVE SINCE CONFIRMED WITH OUR LEGAL COUNSEL THAT SOME FORM OF PUBLIC COMMENT IS REQUIRED, ALTHOUGH THE FORMAT, TIME ALLOWED, ETC., IS UP TO THE BOARD.]
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?
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