This guest post was written by Rick Hood, who was a member of the Amherst School Committee from 2010 to 2016 and chair of the Regional School Committee from 2010 to 2012.
In a town where only the H is silent, what is “acceptable” public comment?
An issue that came up a few times when I was on the School Committee was how to handle critical public comment directed at people, as opposed to policy, program or process. The issue came up again at the May 22 meeting of the Regional School Committee, where many had come to comment on the middle school principal search.
I urge people to watch that meeting; seeing is much more direct than reading the words of someone like me interpreting what I saw. You can find the video at Amherst Media: https://amherstmedia.org/content/amherst-pelham-regional-school-committee-5-22-18
Having said that, here are my thoughts.
The first person to speak during the public comment period asked if she could be allowed 10 minutes to speak instead of the usual three. After some discussion, that request was denied. But it was said that the three-minute limit would not be a hard stop. It was also suggested that the speaker use “other methods” to communicate longer comments. This was the committee’s decision, not the chair’s, as the chair had asked the committee and the consensus was no.
The main issue occurred when the speaker started making disparaging remarks about specific people, mainly the superintendent, but also teachers.
Some examples include:
“…teachers who discredited their own profession in service to repairing another person’s ego [at the] last school committee meeting…”
“…the superintendent had to create public suspicion about a principal of color who was well known in the district…”
“…unless one white man decides they are the right fit for his establishment…”
“…this was a hiring system of cronyism that the superintendent had set up…”
The chair and other committee members cut her off and asked her to stop with the disparaging personal remarks. She kept doing it, and so eventually the committee voted to recess, and walked away before the speaker was done.
So what is the best way to handle these situations?
On the one hand, these comments were definitely a violation of the School Committee’s written policy, which had been made crystal clear by the Chair and others. Based on that, it’s hard to argue that the committee did the wrong thing.
On the other hand, this is public comment directed to a board of elected officials, and should such speech be restricted at all? At this meeting, both critical and supportive people attended and spoke. I believe that members of the public can decide for themselves who seems credible, who does not, and who is “out of line” or “over the top” in their remarks.
This is what School Committee “Policy BEDH: Public Participation at Committee Meetings” says:
“Speakers may offer comments and opinions about the school operations and programs that concern them, but in public session the Committee will not hear personal complaints about school personnel nor against any member of the school community, either by name or by reference to position. Under most circumstances, administrative channels are the proper means for disposition of legitimate complaints involving staff members.”
Many schools have a similar policy, because most of it comes the Mass. Association of School Committees’ suggested polices, which many school systems use as a basis and modify as needed.
Perhaps “nor against any member of the school community” is a too broad. I am not sure that protecting “any member of the school community” from “personal complaints” is the best way to go. My view is that certain school officials are fair game for any kind of comment. School Committee members are elected. They are answerable to the public and, in my view, have to take whatever they get in terms of public feedback, and that
feedback should not be restricted.
The superintendent is not elected, and is technically not directly answerable to the public, but rather to the School Committee. Still, the superintendent does answer to the public all the time and knows that is part of the job.
Superintendents need to have a “thick skin,” which really means self-assurance, combined with a belief that the majority of the public will properly weigh critical and positive comments and come to a reasonable understanding of the truth. By the way, the current superintendent has that quality, and was not the one asking to limit what was said about him.
I know that many will disagree with some of this and think that civility should always be “enforced.” But does that end up doing more harm than good? It’s a question worth asking. I am honestly not sure what the “right” answer is, and can see both sides of the argument.
What do you think?
“A Better Amherst,” the book version of the 80 charter-related posts on this blog, is now available at amazon.com.