by the Sun Sentinel’s Editorial Board
February 21, 2017
Addressing a school board meeting can be the ultimate civics lesson for a student who feels passionate about righting a wrong. But increasingly, South Florida school boards are applying pressure on students, teachers and parents to avoid airing criticism in public.
It’s a disturbing trend that discourages the right and duty of citizens to speak up. And it sends a terrible message to students so passionate about an issue that they are willing to sit through a school board meeting for the chance at three minutes of public comment.
The issue was spotlighted last week in a Palm Beach Post story about a student who wanted to address the Palm Beach County School Board.
But it’s also an issue in Broward, where people interested in raising an issue must sign up a week in advance. Anna Fusco, president of the Broward County Teachers Union, says would-be speakers “are discouraged to say anything that might be in a negative tone. The school board wants things more positive.”
In other words, school boards want to avoid public comments that reflect negatively on the school district — even if warranted.
Miguel Cardenas, a Lake Worth High student, wanted to address the school board to support his former assistant principal, who was transferred to an alternative school. According to the Post, the assistant principal and principal were removed after an investigation into the school’s disciplinary practices.
After signing up to speak, Cardenas was removed from class and sent to the principal’s office, where an assistant regional superintendent was waiting for him. The regional superintendent arrived a few minutes later.
Cardenas still decided to speak, but was stifled during his comments. School Board Chairman Chuck Shaw wrongly told him he couldn’t use the assistant principal’s name because it was “an open case that’s being reviewed.”
As a result, Cardenas stumbled through his prepared remarks, awkwardly trying to avoid the assistant principal’s name. Shaw later admitted to the Post that speakers can legally mention names during public comment.
Of course they can. And Cardenas should be applauded for following through with his speech. It was wrong to try to shut him up.
The 15-year-old freshman also notes that no one has followed up with him, leading him to believe that more than addressing his concerns, his superiors simply wanted to keep him from speaking.
In Broward, while anyone can speak on an agenda item, the school board limits “public comments” to just 10 speakers — a line-up that fills up quickly. Public comment is also capped at 30 minutes.
We understand the desire to get on with district business, but if taxpayers want to be heard at a school board meeting, they should be heard. If public comment must be limited to 30 minutes, perhaps the three minutes should be lowered for each. This is common practice in city commission meetings. If you have 20 speakers, they each get 90 seconds. If you have 30 speakers, they each get a minute.
The Broward School Board, the only one in South Florida to begin meetings in the morning, deserves credit for recently experimenting with public comments at 5 p.m. once a month. Previously, people could only speak in the morning — hardly convenient for working people.
School Board member Robin Bartleman told us that the board is discussing ways to get the public more involved. They now allow public comments at workshops, which are held twice a month. They’re also considering a later start time for meetings when more people can attend.
“I feel we should have as much public input as possible,” Bartleman said. She added that the board chair has occasionally allowed more than 10 speakers and that she’d be open to more. She said she’s never called speakers before meetings but believes the school district wants to resolve problems before they are aired in public.
Given the challenges facing public schools, school board members should do more to embrace and engage their constituents. Let people sign up at the meeting to speak. And stop staff from calling in advance to find out why people want to speak.
Public schools are a foundation of our society. Our tax dollars pay to operate them. It’s where our children spend the majority of each day.
Students, teachers and parents deserve to be heard. School board members elected to serve should devise better ways to listen. [READ MORE]