Our Opinion: Will school board heed public's call to hear speakers?

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Wilson County parents and community members are making their voices heard about the school board's reluctance to hear them out.

Today's opinion page includes three letters to the editor in response to Saturday's editorial on the Wilson County Board of Education's public comment policy, a set of rigid rules designed to discourage input from board members' bosses — the constituents who elect them.

Mary Virginia Olinger of Wilson recounts her chilly reception at the school board's Aug. 20 meeting when she expressed concern about schools' cleanliness and volunteered to assist with a cleanup and beautification effort. Having reached the board's three-minute time limit for public comments, she was interrupted mid-sentence and writes that she felt intimidated when a police officer began to approach her.

Her allotted time may have elapsed, but how about a little common sense? Giving a self-described  "petite 64-year-old woman" the bum's rush hardly seems hospitable and violates the spirit if not the letter of the First Amendment and the North Carolina Open Meetings Law. 

Rhyan Breen, a local attorney and the parent of two Wilson County students who is one of three candidates seeking the school board's District 7 seat, compared the policy with those of three neighboring counties and found Wilson's repressive rules to be an outlier.

Wilson's school board is the only one to designate its chairperson the censor-in-chief of public comments. The rules say our board chair can determine when a speaker is out of order and shut him or her down. That's what got us here in the first place — the current policy was hastily adopted in May after speakers were interrupted and silenced under the former framework. 

North Carolina Press Association general counsel Amanda Martin said the censorship clause could easily put our school board in the position of infringing on speakers' First Amendment rights. "Discretion is the devil's playground," she noted. 

We commend Breen for taking a stand against the policy, and we hope his fellow District 7 candidates, Stephanie Cyrus and Wayne Willingham, will do the same.

Kay Hannaford made a commonsense appeal for the school board to scrap its three-day speaker registration deadline and allow citizens to add their names to the public comment signup sheet when they arrive at each meeting. 

"These are elected officials who are supposed to represent the people and listen to their concerns and not try to stifle them," Hannaford writes. 

On Saturday, we urged Wilsonians to contact school board members in an effort to see these shortsighted and constitutionally risky public comment rules revised. We repeat that call to action today with one addition — let's also appeal to Superintendent Lane Mills' better angels.

While the board supervises the school system's top executive and bears the ultimate responsibility for setting district-wide policy, a superintendent's recommendation carries weight. If Mills can satisfactorily rewrite the rules, surely this board would appreciate his work to alleviate what's become a high-profile headache.

Superintendents concern themselves with their school district's reputation, and being known as the place where parents are muzzled can't be good public relations for Wilson County Schools. 

Call Mills at the WCS central office at 252-399-7700 and email him at lane.mills@wilsonschoolsnc.net to request his support for fixing the fractured public comment policy.

Once again, we're providing school board members' contact information in hopes that phone calls, letters and emails from their constituents will bring about a sincere change of heart when it comes to Wilson residents' right to speak. 

  • 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