The Flagler County School Board has had a rough few months at its meetings, with public comments testing, and at times crossing, the boundaries of decorum. The board is trying to improve the atmosphere.
But let’s not overreact or create false equivalencies. In two past meetings, one person was rude: Charlene Cothran, who repeatedly attacked a transgender boy, his parents, their supporters and advocates simply because the boy is transgender. In response, many others rallied around the boy and his family. At one point they turned their back to Cothran as she addressed the board. It’s one of the oldest and customary means of peaceably–and yes, respectfully–showing dissent without being disruptive.
The school board would be wrong, and historically illiterate, to interpret that as a form of disruption. Yet some of its members do. And because in a misapplication of balance it seems now to be falsely equating the vileness of Cothran with the expression of the transgender advocates, it is slipping down the dangerous slope of new and indefensible restrictions on public speech at board meetings–even though no one is asking that even comments such as Cothran’s be restricted: anyone has the right to make a fool of themselves in the sunshine, which brings its own corrective. It certainly did in Cothran’s case.
Yet the board discussed new restrictions at a workshop on Tuesday. The proposal signals a patronizing and muzzling approach to public comment periods at board meetings by School Board attorney Kristy Gavin and board members Janet McDonald and Maria Barbosa. (Incidentally, in their understanding of public comment, had I made that statement at the dais before them, I’d have been called out of order because I’m singling them out for public criticism.)
Board member Andy Dance alone spoke against the restrictions. He insists that there was no consensus for the new rules, that only three board members participated, that a full board must address the proposals, and that nothing has changed for now. “I’m not going to go down the path of restrictions. It’s the opposite of what we should be doing,” he told me today. That’s reassuring. But a lot of what was said at that workshop by a plurality of voices was not at all reassuring.
The new rules Gavin is proposing and that both McDonald and Barbosa approve of include comment cards requiring the speaker to disclose the topic he or she will speak of ahead of time; limiting the window when comment cards may be filled out; the elimination of the open public comment period on any topics at the top of meetings, restricting comments on topics not on the agenda to the end of the meeting; and most troubling of all, a prohibition of any comment that refers to students, parents or employees. That includes comments by parents speaking of their own child’s issue at any given school or, presumably, any employee bringing a personnel or harassment or corruption allegation to light or a member of the community criticizing a principal, a school board member, the superintendent or members of the administration.
Regarding the last, Gavin and the board members had the following disturbing exchange, which seemed to me a bit too inspired by “The Handmaid’s Tale” (assuming the board is allowing the book in its schools):
“It is a topic that can be discussed and only a topic,” Gavin said. “We have to be more vigilant.” Without citing the county or the district, she then described how another school board handles public comments. “In their meeting they actually stop a parent if a parent starts speaking specifically about their child.” They will ask the parent what school the child attends, then refer the parent to an administrator in charge of that school.
“That’s awesome,” McDonald said.
“That works,” Superintendent Jim Tager, never before known for Commander tendencies, said.
“That way, again, the student isn’t being foisted into a limelight, either,” Gavin said. (Talk about in loco parentis on speed.)
“Nor any partial information that the community has created,” McDonald said. “That’s excellent. I like that. So, adult, student, anyone associated with the district.”
Did you hear that? If you address a subject referring to an adult, a student or anyone associated with the district: you’ll be stopped.
That means Randall Bertrand could never have brought to light the way the district hobbled before investigating how his transgender son was contemptuously treated by the chorus teacher at Matanzas High School, or how what investigation the school alone did conduct was an inside snow job. I’m sure McDonald would call that not “first-hand information” or “incomplete information”–and prohibit it from being discussed in a comment segment–as if it were her right as a board member to judge and police information, its validity or its source.
Contrast that with what board members are comfortable with during public comment segments:
Maria Barbosa: “It’s wonderful to hear citizens come in and say something very nice about a teacher or the principal, that’s always wonderful comments.”
McDonald: “Positive comments are always welcome. You’re absolutely right.”
The implication is that negative comments, criticism, alerts to problems, discrimination, mistreatment, mismanagement, aren’t welcome. The implication is that accountability isn’t the board’s business, at least not at board meetings, which should be limited to spotlights, back-patting, festivals of PR and gold stars. We have all that, and Barbosa is right: it is wonderful. It must be showcased. But not as a hedge to silence the rest. We’re grown-ups. We can handle both. It’s the board’s responsibility to handle both, not make its job easier under the guise of decorum. Its current proposals are nothing but a pretext to suppress critical information the board would rather not have a public airing.
Bertrand was among the first to speak up against the possible policy change. He noted that speaker cards would have made it impossible the spontaneous show of support that speakers expressed for his son at the January meeting, just as the proposal would have made his own personal stories out of bounds.
“I know that, at times, my comments have drifted from the central issue of protecting LGBTQ youth,” he wrote board members today. “I will endeavor to keep my public comments focused to that end. I feel this is the greatest country in the world, not because we can speak, but that others are allowed to speak against our viewpoints. I understand that my requests can potentially open my family and I up to terribly personal attacks, but we are prepared for this. I implore you to leverage enforcement of the existing policy on public comment but keep the policy unchanged.”
The school board’s existing policy isn’t broken. If anything, it’s already too restrictive, though we haven’t felt it so because those who’ve chaired the board previously have done so with a light hand.
The board has now taken to posting an endless set of rules outside board meetings, framed and easeled a-la-Sinai as if we were all children at Sunday pre-school. Valid and legal as most of the rules may be, they send the wrong message, plastered in our faces like that–that the public is to be corralled and controlled, and that board business is an end in itself, somehow distinct from public business. Neither is true for any elected board. To its credit, that’s not the kind of school board it’s been in the past 15 years or so. It’s not the kind of school board it should become.