‘I Think It Is Chilling’: Board of Ed Rejects Proposed Change to Bylaws Regarding Public Comments at Meetings

Saying they shouldn’t risk the perception that questions, suggestions or thoughts from the public are unwelcome, members of the school board this week rejected a proposal that would have limited the scope of comments from attendees at their meetings.

The Board of Education also softened some new language regarding behavior at its meetings, changing two instances of the word ‘boisterous’ to ‘unruly’ in defining conduct that is not allowed, after school board member Penny Rashin flagged it.

To the suggestion that a member of the public who wishes to address the board present his or her thoughts ahead of time for inclusion on the agenda, Rashin said, “I think it is chilling, actually, to require somebody in town to think they have to get a board member on the side in order to speak.”

“It is not obvious from the face of this that that’s the case,” Rashin said at Tuesday night’s regular Board of Ed meeting, held in the Wagner Room at New Canaan High School. “I think somebody could just read the policy and think, ‘Oh, I have no right to speak,’ even though procedurally they could get a board member to support it. We do have controls, the controls are two minutes to any speaker, I think sometimes you do have uncomfortable comments that you listen to as a Board of Ed member but we are elected representatives and I think that there is a real difference between email communication and face-to-face communication and it takes a lot of courage, actually, for a number of people to come to speak publicly to a board like this and I have always been proud that we have encouraged anyone that wanted to come, to come. I know there are pros and cons to that but I think we have been able to get our business done. We have never had any group that wanted to take over an entire meeting with serial subjects.”

Ultimately, the board voted unanimously in favor of preserving the standing practice regarding public comments, as suggested by Rashin.

The discussion of what Rashin referred to as part “9325A” of the bylaws emerged during a the second read of proposed updates (the school board’s bylaws and policies both are available here, see the first read of section “9325A” from May embedded below as a PDF).

Other proposed changes include allowing the Board of Ed chairman to serve as a regular (not just ex officio) member of the group’s subcommittees, and allowing the chairman—rather than the full board—to request data from district officials.

It appeared from what Board of Ed members said that the proposed new language would have added the condition “concerning any subject on the meeting agenda” to a standing practice whereby anyone who wants to address the school board may do so on any subject, at the top of its meetings (rules about limiting each speaker to two minutes and setting a time limit of 15 minutes to any single topic would be formalized and remain).

Those in favor of the existing policy said when interacting with fellow residents, they often encourage those residents come to a board meeting with their comments. Others asked whether the Board of Ed could enforce the suggested new practice, and sought to know what other area school boards do.

Yet some school board members, including Tom Cronin, said that the change was designed not to restrict public comment but to bring added structure and governance to meetings.

Chair Dionna Carlson said that the proposed new language was recommended to a subcommittee that’s looking at the bylaws and that it’s similar to what some other school boards do.

“There is no intention to curb public comment,” she said. “It’s really intended to—we have had some situations where we had some interesting public comment periods that were just repetitive and argumentative—and I think that would allow some way to put some structure around the meetings.”

School board member Brendan Hayes said he supported the proposed bylaw language.

“I do not think this is really ‘chilling,’ I think if someone wants to speak about something they will do so irrespective of what is in the agenda,” Hayes said. “I think there are many ways to come and get their views across, including emailing us and talking to us about the agenda.”

Others suggested that the Board of Ed could adopt a rule saying that new agenda items could be added the same night—Carlson noted that Robert’s Rules of Order already allow for that.

Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bryan Luizzi said that where an open public comment period may prompt new and unanticipated questions of the board, he was concerned about adding new formal agenda items where “maybe we [the board] are not prepared to have a meaningful discussion about it.”

“You can find this type of a bylaw in many towns in the Board of Education—that items must be on the agenda in order to be discussed and it has worked well for those towns too. But I can see, thinking it through and hearing the conversation here that we would not want, I do not think the board would ever want to limit people’s ability to come and share and speak and be a part of this, because I know the board is committed, and always has been, to a very open process and open communications, inviting people—parents and other stakeholders—to be a part of that conversation.”

Recalling an instance two years ago where student players on the NCHS squash team came out to advocate for funding their program, Board of Ed Vice Chair Sheri West said: “They were trying to time their comments proactively, well in advance of the budget discussion, so that they could come and they organized their student captains who prepared some well-thought-out, articulate talking points and they came and they presented and used as a positive leadership experience for those kids to advocate for their cause.”

“If this as it stands, were here, then they would not be able to do that, so if everyone could pause on that one example and think about this specific language, I think it’s influencing toward not restricting it,” West said.

Board of Ed member Maria Naughton said she agreed with West and, citing students’ passion, called the suggested language “an unnecessary roadblock to public comment.”

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