Corrected: A prior version of this story misidentified the Colorado school board that considered eliminating public comments at its meetings. It is the Greeley Evans school board.
School boards around the country have sought to limit public comment at their meetings in recent months, many in response to overheated debates on issues like COVID-19 precautions and equity for LGBTQ students.
In making such changes, boards face a tricky balance between openness and efficiency.
On the one hand, limiting the subject matter, length, or content of public comments could run afoul of the First Amendment—and it could further inflame distrust between the elected officials and the families they serve.
On the other hand, lengthy, repetitive comments and off-topic character attacks can lengthen meetings and take time away from discussions of important, less controversial subjects.
The debate comes at a time when school boards are tasked with budgeting and overseeing the use of billions of dollars in emergency federal funds meant to aid in pandemic recovery. It also comes as coordinated political groups promote concepts like curriculum transparency and question how schools discuss issues like race and sexuality.
“If they don’t have conversations with the public, they might be making decisions more efficiently, but they are also opening themselves up to a lot of distrust,” said Jonathan Collins, an assistant professor of political science at Brown University who studies school boards’ relationships with constituents.
School boards change meeting policies
State laws on access and participation in public meetings vary, and many do not require school boards to provide time for public comment at all, so the contours of the debate differ based on the state.
And not all of the changes are directly linked to emotional or inflammatory public debates. But changes like limiting attendance at public hearings or limiting time for open discussion inflame tensions with parents when more controversial policy discussions arise.
After a few months of not allowing public comment at all, the Conway, Ark., school board voted in December to reduce time for individual comments from five to three minutes, to limit overall comment time to 30 minutes per meeting, and to restrict comments to school-related issues, the Arkansas-Democrat Gazette reported.
If they don’t have conversations with the public, they might be making decisions more efficiently, but they are also opening themselves themselves up to a lot of distrust.
In recent months, the Conway board has approved restrictions on transgender students’ restroom use and debated restrictions on how teachers discuss issues like race and gender at packed meetings. That has led to criticism from opponents of such limitations and some overtly transphobic statements during public comment periods, local news station KARK reported.
“Let me remind you that those who do such things deserve death,” one man told the board, describing transgender people.
In Minnesota, the Star-Tribune newspaper ran an editorial that criticized the Roseville Area district’s school board this week when it voted to exclude public comment from its meeting broadcasts.
“If misinformation is shared, public officials have the ability to counter it with the truth,” the Star-Tribune’s editorial board wrote. “Suppressing public input is dangerously undemocratic.”
In Colorado, the Greeley Evans district’s school board considered eliminating public comment from its meetings last year, which it is legally permitted to do, Colorado Public Radio reported. Before that discussion, commenters had called board members “disgusting” and accused them of “letting porn and bestiality and incest and rape into our schools.”
In Colorado’s Falcon district, a woman dressed as Santa Claus performed a rap against social-emotional learning at the board’s December meeting. Some conservative groups have equated SEL, which teaches skills like recognizing and managing emotions, to critical race theory.
“There are certain district teachers who will use that SEL, to indoctrinate our children into a living hell,” the woman said in her rap, according to CPR.
First Amendment concerns
Some recent board policy shifts have even led to legal challenges.
In Florida, the conservative political group Moms for Liberty filed a federal lawsuit in November 2021 that claims a public comment policy by the Brevard County School Board violates their First Amendment rights, public radio station WLRN reported. Members of the board “interrupt, silence, and even expel speakers they find disagreeable from school board meetings when finding speech ‘abusive,’ ‘personally directed,’ or ‘obscene,’ ” the group said in a legal brief.
The school board has found that personal insults “tend to result in audience members calling out and becoming disruptive, whether in agreement or disagreement with the speaker’s comments,” it said in a response. “This precludes the board from conducting its business and inhibits public speakers from being heard.”
In Maine, a federal judge ruled in July that the Regional School Unit 22 school board violated an activist’s free-speech rights when it prohibited him specifically from speaking at meetings, the Bangor Daily News reported. At one school board meeting, the man complained about “hardcore anal sex” in a school library book. He also faces a lawsuit from a neighboring district that accused him of repeatedly harassing a teacher and labeling her a “sexual predator” because of her work supporting LGBTQ sudents.
“Here, it is hard to shake the sense that the school board is restricting the speech because the board disagrees with both [the activist’s] opinions and the unpleasantness that accompanies them,” U.S. District Judge Nancy Torresen wrote in her opinion.
Marc Terry, an attorney who represents school districts in Massachusetts, said he would advise boards against severely limiting or eliminating comment time, even if they are permitted to do so.
“My advice would be to think about a different approach,” he said. “You should … not allow a small amount of people who are amped up on a particular issue to cause you to remove public comment.”
Any policies on comments should be “content-neutral” so it doesn’t seem that the board is censoring criticism or disagreement, Terry said.
Even limitations on “defamatory comments” or incivility have been difficult for some boards to legally enforce.
Policies should focus on simple limitations like the length of individual comments, total time allowed for comments at a given meeting, and how to sign up to participate, Terry said.
Some policies have also included reminders to focus on policies that are under board jurisdiction.
Local news reports show some boards have also voted to limit comments to specific agenda items, though various state laws and courts may differ on whether such limitations are permissible.
A politically polarized climate
What appears to be greater tension at board meetings follow eruptions and protests over policies like school masking requirements that emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic.
And some organizations have encouraged parents to be vocal about how schools spend COVID-19 relief funds, citing the high-stakes need to get students on track academically after years of disruptions.
Nationally, politicians have also increasingly voiced concerns about local school governance on the campaign trail, putting a spotlight on meetings that may have been more sparsely attended in the past.
“Political polarization has been growing since the 2000s, and it has engulfed everything in its path, including school boards,” said Collins, the Brown professor.
The National School Boards Association was met with a political firestorm in September 2021 when it sent a letter to President Joe Biden, asking for federal assistance with “a growing number of threats of violence and acts of intimidation across the nation.” The organization later retracted the memo.
Board members and school administrators in various states had complained about physical confrontations with the public, receiving threats at home, and having to use back entrances to administrative offices out of fear for their safety. In at least one district, angry parents attempted to make a “citizen’s arrest” of a school principal, using zip ties as handcuffs.
The scandal worsened when Attorney General Merrick Garland said the U.S. Department of Justice would form a task force to discuss the issue and advise local leaders.
Conservative media groups saw the action as an attempt to stifle dissent and label conservative parents as “domestic terrorists.” Amid the controversy, many state school boards associations disaffiliated from the national organization.
School boards’ efforts to build trust with the public should extend beyond how they conduct public comment periods at meetings that may not be accessible to some families with transportation limitations or night-shift jobs, Collins said.
And factors like language barriers and fear of public speaking can make it difficult for some would-be speakers to contribute, he added.
Boards should consider moving routine meetings to school sites, which are more familiar to the public, Collins said, and they should provide multiple venues for public feedback, beyond structured meeting comments.
Boards could also consider holding non-voting, participatory workshops to allow the public to interact with data about student achievement and weigh in on decisions like district policies, facilities plans, and budgets, he said.
“This kind of engagement and participation is about building habits and building confidence,” Collins said. “What are the opportunities for creativity here?”
A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 2023 edition of Education Week as School Boards Are Limiting Public Comment. Will That Erode the Public’s Trust?