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Why are Public Comments at School Board Meetings Important?

Response from “Ask Former Trustees – Clear Creek ISD Chapter”: Joanna Baleson, Ken Baliker, Jennifer Broddle, Bob Davee, Glenn Freedman, Ann Hammond, Charlie Pond, Page Rander, Dee Scott, Win Weber

The First Amendment of the US Constitution protects one’s free speech: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Why do school boards provide an opportunity for public comment at their regular meetings?

School boards are composed of elected members who set public policy and exercise governmental authority on behalf of their stakeholders and the voters who duly elected them. Allowing time for public comment at a school board’s regular meeting (1) reinforces the aspirational goals inherent in our system of representative government while (2) ensuring more reliable deliberation and better decision making by the school board and 3) building trust in the board by reinforcing their commitment to their constituents.

What aspirational goals are reinforced through public comment?

The United States’ Constitution guarantees our “freedom of speech” and protects the “right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”  This right was initially earned by the sacrifice of thousands during the revolutionary war, extended to the enslaved on the bloody battlefields of the Civil War, and has been strengthened from generation to generation through the Civil Rights movement and more recent public initiatives.  This right is fundamental to proper representative government, and time reserved for public comment recognizes and reflects its importance to all.

How do public comments lead to better school board deliberations and decision making?

While stakeholders always have an opportunity to contact their elected board members, time reserved for public comment during a regular board meeting comes after the school board has publicly posted its meeting agenda. This agenda lists, for the public, the issues that will be discussed and the decisions that may be made at that meeting. Importantly, the board can only discuss items on the posted agenda, even though citizens can comment on the topics of their choosing. Thus, the period reserved for public comment, typically at the beginning of the posted board meeting, provides an opportunity for citizens who are potentially affected by or have information pertaining to any relevant issue or decision to be made by the school board, to publicly express their perspective and provide information they may have prior to board action.

On occasion, the public wants the board to discuss items not on the posted agenda, but discussion of unposted topics is prohibited by the Texas Open Meetings Act.

Given those considerations, how can I most effectively communicate my support or concerns during the public comment section of my school board’s regular meeting?

While your issue is important to you, the school board will inevitably be dealing with additional items that are on its meeting agenda. In addition, other stakeholders may be equally passionate about other issues; they may have different experiences and views; and they may even disagree with you. To assure that your comments are treated respectfully:

A. Before your comments to the board: Review the district’s procedures and policies for receiving public comment. This means you should understand how you register to speak, how much time you will be afforded and how to conduct yourself. Those rules are important. They protect the order and orderliness of the process which is in everyone’s best interest. They protect the dignity of everyone involved, and they are intended to maximize everyone’s opportunity to be heard. Your time will necessarily be limited – not because the board doesn’t want to hear from you – but because the board will necessarily need to preserve time to hear from all other public speakers and to properly address all items on its meeting agenda.

B. Delivering your comments: You are a stakeholder who is exercising the most fundamental and important of the rights you have as a citizen. Treat the exercise of that right with the seriousness it deserves. Conduct yourself and deliver your message as one would expect of a responsible citizen. Calm, respectful and well-reasoned discourse, when delivered with appropriate passion, will inevitably lend weight and value to your comment. Disruptive behavior, personal attacks and innuendos, bullying, or abusive comments do the opposite. Disruptive behavior also builds walls and resentment, takes the focus from your issue and puts it on you. That may be personally satisfying, but it is unlikely to be worthy of your larger concern or your essential role in the process of local government

What is off-limits or inappropriate during the public comments?

Public comments are meant to be student-centered, civil, respectful, issues-oriented, factual, and free from personal attacks of any sort. Hence, comments that violate these norms of public decency are inappropriate, regardless of the topic, the emotions and the passions involved.

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