By Brad Hughes
KSBA Member Support/Communications Services Director
When friends visited during my childhood, they found a welcoming home, good food — and a few rules. No screaming indoors. Wash your hands before eating. Come when you are called. Looking back, there was nothing autocratic in my parents’ rules. I, my siblings and our guests easily learned when we stretched the lines of love and hospitality too far.
It’s not much of a stretch to apply this analogy to a school board meeting. The family is there — the board, superintendent and staff. They all understand the rules of how meetings are conducted, what is permissible, what is frowned upon and what is unacceptable.
Not so for many guests who show up at the board’s “house,” often for the first time. Some don’t know there are rules. Others don’t care. But in fairness to all, rules of the house need to be routinely explained and, when necessary, reasonably enforced.
Two episodes at Kentucky school board meetings in April serve as a reminder to district leaders and citizens alike on the importance of understanding the house rules.
Free speech…within limits
In both meetings, participants refused to abide by the board’s limits on speaking outside the
established public comment period. According to media reports, in one case, the visitor hushed after being told she would be escorted from the room. In the other, the guest was removed by district personnel.
Almost everyone understands that Kentucky law guarantees a place for the public at meetings of government created bodies. Not as many people understand that there are no statutory guidelines for participation. And still fewer people are aware that nothing in the Open Meetings Act gives citizens a right to speak. Observe and listen, yes. Talk and interact, no.
So the onus is on the board to determine its rules for public participation, especially for visitors making speeches or posing questions. Having attended hundreds of board meetings, I can attest to the fact that Kentucky boards are all over the place when it comes to such guidance.
Some have time limits. Others don’t watch the clock. And a few allow exchanges with the
audience throughout the meeting. What works best for your board is your call.
Many boards use a “meeting protocol flyer.” It’s a simple one-page or trifold pamphlet that explains meeting functions, such as how action is taken, when comments are accepted and any limitations. Copies can be placed on seats for the audience or next to the sign-in sheet for those wishing to speak. Boards requiring advance notice of intent to speak should make this document available ahead of time, too.
At the very least, a handout should provide notice that certain areas – talking about specific
students, attacking school personnel – are off limits. To a point, superintendents are the
exception, as questions, even polite criticism, go with the job. But board chairmen should be ready to step in and halt harangues amounting to nothing more than a public tongue-lashing.
Just as they would as guests in your home, visitors should be expected to adhere to the rules.
If they don’t like comment limitations, they can run for office. But a guest – even a taxpaying, student-enrolling “guest” – can be welcomed only so far. Removing an angry parent or employee from a meeting should be a last resort. It probably will become a news story. And even when tolerance is shown, physically removing a visitor from a public meeting will leave a bad image.
The best advice in such cases is to be as lenient and evenhanded as possible. And on those rare occasions when that doesn’t get the job done, politely show them the door.
The Last Word
High emotions at a school board meeting aren’t unheard of. They can come between district leaders as well as visitors. It’s easy to get caught up in the heat of the moment on a point of passion about children and their futures or adults jobs and their futures.
Boards of education with clearly defined, regularly explained rules for public engagement set an expectation for meeting visitors. Chairmen who maintain a fair, impersonal management of comment periods – and throughout the meeting – send a simple message: You are welcome in our house, but rules apply to all.
And that’s a message worth getting out.