Public Speaking at School Board meetings


HomePennsylvania Open Government ForumOpen Meetings HelpPublic Speaking at School Board meetings

This topic contains 4 replies, has 4 voices, and was last updated by  brixmalony 11 months, 2 weeks ago. This post has been viewed 995 times

Viewing 5 posts - 1 through 5 (of 5 total)
  • Author
    Posts
  • #977

    rwaltfamily
    Member

    I have a question regarding the way our school/school board conducts the monthly school board meetings. In order for the public to speak at a meeting, we have to register with the board secretary at least one day before the meeting, and notify the secretary of the subject we would like to discuss. That is no problem. Now, however, they are having us go through another step by discussing, and getting the subject of our comments cleared, with either the high school principal or the superintendent of the schools. It seems as though they are attempting to intimidate the public so there will not be any public comment. The principal or superintendent can now tell us that we cannot speak on a subject. They are telling us that this is in accordance with the PA Sunshine Laws.
    Does this sound legal?

    #1456

    Kim_de_B
    Member

    As discussed in the previous post, this is a difficult one.

    In a nutshell:

    The Sunshine Act provides for government meetings to be open to the public, and includes a provision that requires "reasonable opportunity" for public comment at meetings.

    However, it also allows boards to adopt rules and procedures for the conduct of public meetings. This means they may require citizens to be placed on the agenda prior to the meeting, and they may place a time limit on a citizen’s presentation and any resulting discussion.

    The law does say that these rules and regulations "shall not be made to violate the intent of this chapter," meaning the rules the board sets must keep meetings open to the public and provide for public participation.

    The law also specifies that public comments are to be limited to "matters of concern, official action or deliberation which are or may be before the board or council prior to taking official action."

    And that’s about all it says about public participation at meetings.

    The law does NOT specifically address, at all, the issue you raise – whether or not a board can require citizens to discuss their topics of concern with someone before they can get approval to be placed on the agenda.

    That does seem counter to the intentions of the Sunshine Act to me, in that it would tend to have a chilling effect on public participation.

    Ultimately, however, since the Sunshine Act does not address this point, it remains open to interpretation.

    The law says the board may adopt rules "necessary for the conduct of its meetings and the maintenance of order." The board’s argument would no doubt be that they need this pre-screening process in order to make sure meetings run smoothly, and so the meeting isn’t disrupted by surprises.

    But, as you note, you can also clearly make a case that this "pre-screening" process is intimidating and runs counter to the intent of the law to provide for public discourse.

    The bottom line is this: Ultimately, it would be up to the courts to decide this. Unfortunately, there is little you can do about it, under the current law, other than filing a complaint to claim the board is making the right of public participation difficult, in counter to the intent of the Sunshine Act.

    You may wish to file a request under the new open records law, asking for a copy of the board’s meeting regulations that include this new provision, as well as a copy of the meeting minutes when this provision was approved, to get some sense of what the motivation was to include this provision.

    In any case, it deserves to be challenged. This is the first time I’ve heard of a board requiring a citizen to have a discussion with someone on the board before being placed on an agenda.

    Good luck, and let us know how you make out.

    #1837

    I’ve already run into something similar with the PASD.

    Last month, while speaking with the School Board president during the comments portion of the meeting, the superintendent interjected with "he’s not on the agenda."  Of course, prior to taking me seat, I took the time to sign the sheet at the door with a check in the block under "do you wish to speak."

    My own thought on the business of having to run issues by a principal prior to being allowed to comment at the public hearing is that some balance needs to be made between your right to speak in public and their privilege of efficiently running their meeting.  Seems to me that they’ve put an anti-free speech hurdle in your path.

    The PASD will have a public hearing on an issue important to this district:  moving from the Mid Penn to the LL League.   Given past practices, I suspect the public’s ability to speak will be at issue.  But specific issues with that aside, I have a question or two related to the creation of a public record of hearings/meetings of school boards: the minutes.

    When I spoke at the school board meeting referenced above, part of my comments were quoted in a newspaper article the following day.  However, none of my comments – generally or specifically – made it into the minutes.   I am not looking for publicity, but if a citizen stands up to discuss an important issue, shouldn’t at least the fact that someone (anyone) raised that issue (I expressed a concern about the administration appearing to running the Mid Penn/LL League move under the radar) make it into the minutes?

    At what point or level do the record creators (school board or administrators) get to decide what is, or what is not, a part of the public record?

    #2038

    Kim_de_B
    Member

    Well, here is all the Sunshine Act has to say on the topic of what has to be in the meeting minutes:

    Written minutes shall be kept of all open meetings of agencies. The minutes shall include:
    (1) The date, time and place of the meeting.
    (2) The names of members present.
    (3) The substance of all official actions and a record by individual member of the roll call votes taken.
    (4) The names of all citizens who appeared officially and the subject of their testimony.

    So the law does require some mention of citizens who speak … The problem is in the language "who appeared officially." What does that mean? I would assume — to cite from your example — that if you sign a sheet as you enter the meeting and indicate you wish to speak, that THIS would be an indication that you are appearing officially.

    Also, note that the language of the law only requires the minutes to include "the subject" of citizen testimony. So technically speaking, all a board needs to do to meet the requirements of the law is to record "Joe Jones, MidPenn/LL League" in the minutes, without saying if the citizen spoke in favor or against or whatever on the issue at hand.

    This is better than nothing, I suppose, but not by much.

    To counter the lack of citizen comment in the minutes, you can try a number of approaches.

    First, ask that citizen comment at all public meetings be recorded in the minutes, as required by the Sunshine Act, and take note of their response. Ask them to provide a reason if they say they will not.

    Second, know that the Sunshine Act entitles anyone and everyone to make tape or video recordings of any and all public meetings. Perhaps making your own record of the meeting — and finding a way to distribute it to other interested citizens — will be an incentive to make sure the minutes accurately reflect all participants.

    #7659

    brixmalony
    Participant

    Yes, I think so, and that still stands on the school protocols, and I think you are idea is very much fair for the students as well as the school faculty. Just be ready though, some public speakings may have scripted content but most of their comments may not so be ready for unsolicited replies from various party. By the way, when it comes to public speaking make sure, that your presenter holds more in its best, by giving their utmost and comprehensive explanations. To get some quick ideas about proper public speaking, try checking this one http://smartleesecreative.com/.

Viewing 5 posts - 1 through 5 (of 5 total)

You must be logged in to reply to this topic.