Has anyone ever enjoyed hearing a recitation of his or her perceived mistakes? If so, let’s add masochism to the list of that poor soul’s faults.
In public life, however, willingness to hear criticism is part of the job. And in American life, freedom of speech is written into our Constitution.
So sorry, Shawnee Mission school board, but members of the public should feel free to ignore the you-gotta-be-kidding gag order that you’ve tried to impose on them. Autocrats can outlaw criticism and thus avoid hearing any unhappy sounds from constituents. But you, alas, cannot.
The school board was rightly criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas this week for new guidelines that say those making public comments at board meetings must refrain from mentioning any particular employee or student by name. That’s unconstitutional, the ACLU says, and we agree.
If people can’t get specific, are they supposed to speak in code? Or just keep silent altogether?
The new rules were first announced in April, the same month parents asked a series of particularly uncomfortable questions at a school board meeting.
Their many concerns included a lack of transparency, how sexual assault reports are handled, transparency, why staff cuts in the school library are necessary, transparency and why some of the highest paid employees are also getting big stipends.
Two girls and their parents got up and said the girls had been bullied so relentlessly that they’d had to leave the school.
All of these topics are important, and none of them was addressed publicly by the board, as is usually the case at these Shawnee Mission meetings.
At the next meeting, the new policy was reiterated: No employee or student should be mentioned by name. (Shhh.)
At that meeting, on May 22, school board president Sara Goodburn interrupted and cautioned a parent who mentioned board member Debra Zila when asking about a potential conflict of interest involving Zila and her daughter, who works for a school district vendor that was unanimously awarded a new contract by the board in January. Why, the parent wanted to know, hadn’t Zila recused herself or been asked to recuse herself from that vote?
Goodburn later said she had been wrong to interrupt the parent’s comments, but only because Zila is a board member rather than a district employee.
But no, the whole policy must go.
And if board members are interested in hearing only high praise and really don’t want to answer any pesky questions from the public, voters may decide to spare them that ordeal.
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