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.
Pierre Tristam is FlaglerLive’s editor. Reach him by email here or follow him @PierreTristam.
Is that how y’all did it up North?
FPC granny says
Excellent reporting FlaglerLive!
Taxpayers pay school taxes which includes the school boards salery! So now the school board wants to muzzle the tax payer to “only good” comments of the school board ect. Muzzle any concerns a resident/taxpayer may have related to the schools-staff and/or employees. Hello! Doesn’t the school board work for the citizens of this county? Another reason I will not vote for McDonald when the time comes. She is always making up her own rules as she goes!!
Percy's mother says
1. There needs to be a complete house cleaning of the Flagler County School Board.
a. Conklin may have a legit doctorate, but doesn’t have critical thinking skills. If she had any thinking or reasoning skills, it would have been clear to her at the last board meeting that when people come up to make public comments they may get flustered, may not be good at public speaking, may not know how to use a microphone and perhaps not make the best use of their allotted 3 minute time. Ms. Conklin’s remark directed at Charlene Cothran about not liking to be “screamed at” was out of line and dismissive. The woman was flustered and had the microphone too close to her mouth, plus she was losing her train of thought and couldn’t get her point across in a clear and concise manner so she was getting frustrated. She has just as much right to make statements as anyone else, even ‘tho her point of view may go against what’s considered socially acceptable in these days and times.
b. Barbosa . . . well . . . despite the allegedly more than questionable credentials, practicing without a State of Florida license issued by the State of Florida Department of Health, all the while insinuating to the public that she is “licensed”, all the while trying to hide behind a particular Florida statute, and the alleged plagiarism . . . her main strong point seems to be giving out gold stars and having her photo taken. How she was elected to the school board is beyond me, and YET, she’s running for re-election.
c. Andy Dance sees the writing on the wall and wants out before his reputation is sullied beyond repair. He’s the only board member who appears to be thoughtful and measured. He also LISTENS.
d. McDonald doesn’t have the strength of personality to be CHAIR.
2. I would like to point out to you, Pierre, and Mr. Bertrand, as well as everybody else, including the members of the school board:
EVERYONE has a right to an opinion. Mr. Bertrand and his followers were able to express their opinions at the last board meeting. When Ms. Cothran stood to make her public comments, Mr. Bertrand stood and turned his back disrespectfully to the board and Ms. Cothran. His supporters who are “sheep” decided to go along with this disrespectful behavior and so a large number of parents, teachers and students stood with their backs to the board and Ms. Cothran. This behavior was befitting that of a petulant child, but in line with the way people conduct themselves these days. Ms. Cothran (Pierre) voiced an opposing opinion and thus was publicly and disrespectfully ostracized with the back turning. AGAIN, EVERYONE HAS A RIGHT TO AN OPINION. The parents, adults and students who stood to turn their backs to the board, Ms. Cothran AND other members of the audience/attendees were disrespectful and there should be an apology forthcoming from the lot of them, which should be READ IN THE ALLOTTED 3 MINUTES AT THE NEXT BOARD MEETING. As an audience member, I was highly offended by the EXclusion and disrespect exhibited by the parents, TEACHERS and students who stood and turned their backs.
NOW, getting to the proposed new rules . . . this is just more from board members who don’t have the critical thinking skills to thoughtfully work out a way such that EVERYONE is offered an opportunity to make his or her public comments without public humiliation and fear of being ostracized.
And who came up with the proposed new rules? Please read my comments above.
To sum it up, there needs to be a through house cleaning of this present school board. Apart from Andy Dance, the rest of them leave a lot to be desired.
JUST BECAUSE YOU CAN GET ELECTED TO PUBLIC OFFICE DOES NOT MEAN YOU ARE SMART.
Rev. Charlene E. Cothran says
I do appreciate your passion and comments but I’m certain the video record proves that my public speaking skills, train of thought, and message were perhaps TOO clearly communicated!! The Board is not attempting to muzzle me because I was “flustered ed”. I was not. They were flustered because they haven’t heard the simple TRUTH spoken in public in a longtime. They want to silence me because the message is CLEARLY striking a nerve among parents. Too late! The TRUTH has rung like a bell throughout Flagler County and beyond; thanks, in part, to FlaglerLive!
Randy Bertrand says
Percy’s Mom you seem pretty worked up. Relax, don’t get flustered. It’s all good. Also, please post your full and correct name as Reverend Cothran and I did.
Helen Siegel says
“The board has now taken to posting an endless set of rules outside board meetings, framed and easeld 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. That’s 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”.
(School) Board business is public business!
Mount Laurel, NJ BOE member 2000-2009, where Board members are unpaid, elected volunteers, serving to protect the public trust.
Hey speech can be as lethal as a firearm, so I reckon they should ban it as well eh? Next we should ban automobiles, swimming pools, and cell phones as those kill as well. This is the result of wanting the government to make your decisions. Enjoy that humble pie…………..
We See You says
Maria Barbosa is worried people will call out her fake credentials and plagiarism.
Flagler Mom says
Isn’t it about time we started verifying these so called “doctorates?” We’ve had also had at least two administrators (one recently left) whose ability to speak and write certainly didn’t demonstrate their so-called educations.
John T says
Sounds like the way the Democratic Party likes things. Do as I say and if I don’t like it, I’ll change the rules so you can’t do that. Pretty sad when you can’t take criticism. Not a good example to set for the children.
Randy Bertrand says
Surprisingly, this is a very Conservative Board.
Mike Cocchiola says
Well, I see this as a core conservative approach to governance… shut out the public (except for worshipful praise) and go about the business of tearing down our democratic form of government. This is both pathetic and alarming.
Vincent Lyon says
It seems apparent the only reason for such a change is to protect the school board members from embarrassment.
CB from PC says
Time for All to go.
Shut down the opposition.
Happening in those bastions of higher education across the United States as well.
May Ms. Conklin also find a place in academia.
PHD, piled higher deeper.
John R Brady says
Check out what PC city council is doing with public participation at council meetings. They have established a rule that if you speak at the first public participation you nay not speak again at the final public participation. Added to that the Mayor does not answer the questions asked by citizens in the first public participation.
Stephen Furnari says
Great coverage by FlaglerLive on an important issue. As an advocate for students with disabilities in Flagler Schools, similar to Mr. Bertrand, under these new rules members of our community would have been precluded us from bringing very important issues relating to Flagler Schools out into the public forum.
Unquestionably, the public statements our community has made in the past have been uncomfortable for the School Board and district leadership; however, the net result is that it forced positive change after many attempts to do so in closed door meetings with district administration.
For the ESE Community, making public comments at school board meetings is not something we do lightly, and often, it is a resource we utilize as a last resort. Notwithstanding, the net result of the public comments the ESE Community has made seems to have yielded mostly positive results, including the formation of the ESE Parent Advisory Council (EPAC).
If the traditional public forum is stifled, or effectively eliminated, by these new rules, I fear community members will be more inclined to take their grievances to a different public forum – the Florida court system — which will waste even more time and taxpayer resources.
Elizabeth Wrenn says
Wow! Flagler wants to be like China!
Well written and informative. If I were the Parent of a Student in Flagler County this would be unacceptable to restrict The BOE public forum to such a one sided conversation along these guidelines. Only positive remarks? What about Constructive criticism .Then pass on to Administration of the designated School. Really? Whats next Cheerleaders. Seems to me the failure of the people in charge to direct the Agenda is the problem.
Ok so a parent or child has a concern or like that is not getting addressed by the specific school administration so they try to bring the matter to the school board who will then refer them unilaterally back to the same authorities who aren’t resolving it in the first place?!? Dissolve the HR department too then. Brilliant!