Parents and residents shouldn’t plan on airing grievances about Shawnee Mission’s elected school officials during the open forum section of board meetings, at least according to a new policy.
Less than a year after the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas denounced the Shawnee Mission School Board for publicly chastising an individual who had criticized a school board member at a May meeting, the board has approved a new policy for those who speak during the open forum.
The new policy, approved by board members on Monday, states that complaints against individual employees, as well as private data related to a student, are inappropriate topics for open forum.
Also inappropriate when addressing the board? Complaining about individual board members.
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Doug Bonney, of the ACLU, said Wednesday that the new policy is still “clearly unconstitutional.”
Previous rules in Shawnee Mission prevented speakers from making personal attacks and speaking about any matter related to an individual student or employee. And though board members were not expressly mentioned in those guidelines, a Shawnee Mission parent was asked not to use board member Deb Zila’s name this May when he criticized Zila for not recusing herself on a vote the parent felt represented a conflict of interest.
“It doesn’t make it any better what they’ve done,” said Bonney, who wrote a scathing letter on May 30 outlining concerns the district’s restrictions violated the First Amendment. “It’s well established that citizens have the right to criticize public officials and that certainly includes members of the board, who they are trying to exempt from complaints, and it also includes public employees.”
Open forums — a portion of school board meetings reserved for public comments — are common segments of school district and government meetings held across the country. The forums are not required by law and school boards who opt to hold them dictate the guidelines surrounding the process.
Though Bonney has stressed an individual’s constitutional right to criticize public servants including teachers at open meetings, it is not uncommon for school districts to restrict speakers from criticizing school personnel or sharing the personal information of students.
“I think boards want to be sensitive to the idea that you don’t have someone defamed or something like that in a public setting,” said Angie Stallbaumer, a policy specialist with the Kansas Association of School Boards who pointed out that most districts encourage complaints to be made in writing. “We feel we have a responsibility to protect the privacy rights of our employees.”
Less common in open forum guidelines are restrictions related to comments about board members. Stallbaumer said sample policies from the school board association related to open forums don’t include recommendations addressing complaints against board members.
Shawnee Mission is one of few metropolitan school districts to explicitly ban complaints against school board members at open forum in their policies. Other districts in the area don’t address complaints or criticism made against school board members.
In Blue Valley, remarks “criticizing specific school district personnel are not permitted.” The Olathe Public School District’s policy states it will not hear personal attacks or defamatory remarks of employees, students or “any person connected with the school district.”
In Kansas City, Kansas, speakers may only address policy-related issues and general community concerns, and critical remarks about specific district personnel or students are prohibited. Kansas City Public Schools bans personal attacks, inappropriate gestures and cursing.
Whether a comment made during the open forum portion of school board meetings is inappropriate is typically left to the discretion of the school board president.
“I don’t know if (complaining) is inappropriate. It’s just not quite the best way to go about it,” said current Shawnee Mission School Board president Craig Denny. “If you have a complaint about a teacher, I think it would be best to take it up with them. I just think (otherwise) it’s rude.”
Board member Cindy Neighbor, who helped draft and formulate a new board manual with Denny and board member Patty Mach, said the current policy stems from the board’s legal and ethical responsibility to protect the privacy of students and employees.
She also has concerns about members of the public voicing complaints that might spread misinformation.
“It’s certainly not to hide anything,” Neighbor said. “What it is doing is protecting individuals as far as personnel privacy is considered.”
Stallbaumer said the thought process behind open forum guidelines is more to protect employee rights than it is to protect board member rights.
“It’s one of those situations where public officials are one thing — they run for those positions,” she said. “It’s a little bit different being a public employee. Certainly you are in the public eye, but one could argue that a teacher did not ask for the types of scrutiny that a school board member or county commissioner would have signed up for.”
So what does that mean for Shawnee Mission parents who want to voice complaints about the school district’s seven elected officials?
The three Shawnee Mission board members who drafted the manual said this week that despite the language in their new policy, they are open to criticism, with some caveats.
“People have the right to criticize my decision or my vote,” Neighbor said. “I prefer that they do it with facts and research-based information. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen. What happens is that (comments) disparage a person who cannot reply.”
“If there is a complaint about the business of the school board, then absolutely,” Mach said. “Obviously, we want to encourage citizen participation in our board meetings.”
But the policy appears to leave room for interpretation, a task left to whoever is serving as board president.
Denny said Wednesday that policy is meant more to encourage decorum than to stop people from making complaints, but that the parent’s criticism of Zila’s vote this May struck him as “less of a complaint than an attack.”
Neighbor called the parent’s comments an “accusation” that sounded threatening at times. She said the parent should have instead asked board members for clarification on how the issue he brought up had been handled.
“At a reasonable time, I could see that being a complaint about a board member’s action,” Mach said about the parent. “But the way it was asked it didn’t seem like that... There was some very heated moments this past spring. I’m looking forward to constructive dialogue.”
So how should a patron know whether their complaint will be considered constructive criticism or a personal attack?
“I guess they should ask when they are up there,” Denny said.Shawnee Mission school board president reprimands parent at May 22 meeting