Our Opinion: Tell school board that you deserve the right to speak

A Times editorial
Posted 8/24/18

Buses will arrive and school bells will ring Monday, but the first Wilson County Schools homework assignment for the 2018-19 term will be one for the parents.

In late May, your Wilson County Board …

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Our Opinion: Tell school board that you deserve the right to speak

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Buses will arrive and school bells will ring Monday, but the first Wilson County Schools homework assignment for the 2018-19 term will be one for the parents.

In late May, your Wilson County Board of Education passed a restrictive public comment policy that limits your ability to speak during monthly school board meetings. As we celebrate the start of a new school year, it’s time to remind our elected officials that they work for us — not the other way around.

Under the new rules, you can only address the school board if you sign up by noon on the Friday before the Monday meeting and explain to Wilson County Schools staff what you plan to discuss with their bosses. If you miss the deadline or don’t wish to share the nature of your comments in advance, the public servants you elected refuse to hear from you.

Such a backward, hostile and wrongheaded policy cannot be allowed to remain on the books. If enough parents and community members contact the school board to voice their concern, perhaps the panel can be persuaded to change course.

Board members changed the rules for public comment after Chairwoman Christine Fitch interrupted and censored parent speakers lamenting a soccer coach’s suspension during the April meeting. She was enforcing an awful — and unlawful — prior policy that forbade any discussion of personnel matters from the podium.

We took the board to task, explaining that the First Amendment does not allow public bodies to censor citizen speakers merely because their comments make elected officials uncomfortable. Under North Carolina’s personnel privacy laws, board members may be limited in what they can say about employee issues, but there is no limit to what they can hear.

Our objections to the previous policy resonated with the school board’s legal counsel, Schwartz & Shaw, whose firm drafted a replacement that was rubber-stamped the very next month. Unfortunately, your Board of Education and its attorneys saw fit to trade the unconstitutional for the unconscionable.

The three-day registration rule is plainly intended to reduce public participation. The deadline to sign up to speak at the Aug. 20 meeting was Aug. 17, and the agenda for that meeting was posted on the Wilson County Schools website just one day prior. You had less than 24 hours to find out what the issues were, decide whether to address the board and then reserve your place at the podium.

“Parents, employees and members of the community deserve more notice,” wrote District 7 school board candidate Rhyan Breen, who posted the agenda to his campaign Facebook page. We agree.

Those who successfully sign up are required to provide “a brief explanation of the nature of the item with background information sufficient for the superintendent to provide a reasonable understanding of the matter to members of the board.”

The practical effect of that rule is that most people will be reading from prepared remarks instead of speaking extemporaneously. Heartfelt, spur-of-the-moment discourse is discouraged, but bland recitation of watered-down bullet points is OK.

Students will learn about the First Amendment right to free speech and the values of open, accessible and responsive government in their civics and social studies classes this year. What message does it send when our own school board shows disdain for these democratic values?

Here’s your weekend homework assignment: Call, write or email your Board of Education members and tell them Wilson County can do better than a public comment policy that slams the door on parents and concerned citizens.

If Wilsonians weigh in, the board just may have a change of heart.

• Chairwoman Christine Fitch, District 3; 516 S. Lodge St., Wilson, NC 27893; 252-243-5967; christine.fitch@wilsonschoolsnc.net

• Vice Chairman Henry Mercer, District 4; 4537 U.S. 117, Wilson, NC 27893; 252-291-0098; henry.mercer@wilsonschoolsnc.net

• Debora Powell, District 1; 1005 Academy St. E., Wilson, NC 27893; 252-237-0087; debra.powell@wilsonschoolsnc.net

• Velma Barnes, District 2; 2425 Bel Air Ave., Wilson, NC 27893; 252-237-7040; velma.barnes@wilsonschoolsnc.net

• Beverly Boyette, District 5; 6634 Governor Hunt Road, Lucama, NC 27851; 252-291-1386; beverely.boyette@wilsonschoolsnc.net

• Gary Farmer, District 6; 922 Raleigh Road Parkway, Wilson, NC 27896; 252-291-1258; gfarmer1@myglnc.com

• Robin Flinn, District 7; 5034 Country Club Drive, Wilson, NC 27896; 252-243-2473; rflinn@myglnc.com