Editorial: Hear no evil: Cape Elizabeth School Board clamps down on public comment

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You’re a Cape Elizabeth parent whose child comes home from school on a Tuesday with news that raises your eyebrows.

Maybe it’s the way cafeteria employees handled that day’s lunch food. Maybe it was the behavior of another kid on the school bus. Perhaps it wasn’t even disturbing: maybe your son or daughter has high praise for her social studies teacher.

Good news or bad, you decide to attend the School Board meeting that night to share with the board and the other community members in the room, and those watching at home on TV.

Forget about it. After last week’s board meeting, you’re out of luck.

That’s because the School Board changed its policy on public participation. From now on, if you don’t provide at least seven days’ notice about your intention to speak about something that isn’t already on the agenda, you can’t say a word. And even if you do provide the notice required to speak at the next board meeting, whether you get on the agenda is up to the superintendent of schools or the board chairman.

So much for true public participation at School Board meetings.

How many residents actually plan their comments for a school board a week or more in advance? The purpose of public comment is just that: to hear from the public. It may not be legally required of school boards, but it’s part of the tradition of elected boards to respect the public and hear those comments, whether the comments are informative, ridiculous or infuriating. It all comes with the territory and with the open, responsible conduct of the public’s business.

Cape Elizabeth’s acting superintendent, Ken Murphy, says the change is “good policy” that will give board members time to prepare thoughtful discussion of the issues residents raise.

But members have that opportunity without the notice requirement. All they have to say is “gee, we don’t know the answer; we’ll look into it and discuss it next time.” In fact, many school boards actually prohibit their members from discussing non-agenda issues raised by the public for precisely that reason – they can’t be expected to provide intelligent responses on issues for which they’re unprepared.

But they don’t cover their ears and refuse to listen by preventing the public from speaking.

Murphy went on to say there’s nothing “undemocratic” about the new policy and even suggested that most spontaneous public comments about items not already on board meeting agendas come from people for whom criticizing and humiliating school department employees is “almost a recreational activity.”

We seriously doubt that, and are disappointed by Murphy’s attitude toward the public. Most school boards, including Cape Elizabeth’s, already have policies prohibiting defamatory comments and discussion of personnel issues. Why not just enforce the existing rules instead of adopting a restrictive policy that’s a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist?

Our fear, however, is that what underlies this policy change is a desire by the School Board and Murphy to maintain tight control over discussion and the flow of information. The Cape Elizabeth School Board is one of the few elected bodies in our coverage area that officially opposed changes considered this year by the Legislature that would have expanded the public’s rights under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act. Is it surprising that now the board is restricting public participation and leaving it up to the school chief and board chairman to decide who gets to speak and who doesn’t?

One more thing: Murphy also claims that “most” school boards already have policies that don’t allow public comment on non-agenda issues.

We don’t know if that’s true statewide. But in fact, of the 12 public school districts from Scarborough to Bath covered by The Forecaster, nine – Portland, South Portland, Scarborough, Falmouth, School Administrative District 51, Regional School Unit 5, Chebeague Island, Brunswick and RSU 1 – have no such restriction and seven of those expressly allow comments on any subject.

Another, SAD 75, does have a published policy that prohibits non-agenda comments and requires notice to speak. But in practice, according to Superintendent Michael Wilhelm, the policy is not enforced and the public is allowed to speak on any issue.

That leaves Yarmouth as the only other town or city we cover where members of the public can’t step up to the podium at any meeting and discuss whatever they believe is important enough to share with the local school board. And even there, the policy requires the School Committee to conduct two open-agenda meetings a year to allow residents not interested in making appointments to speak to the board. There’s no such accommodation in the Cape Elizabeth policy.

Yarmouth, by the way, is where Murphy was the longtime school chief before he took the interim job in Cape Elizabeth.

We hope Cape Elizabeth’s School Board shows more respect for the public and the flow of public information under Meredith Nadeau, who becomes superintendent in a few weeks, than it has recently demonstrated under Murphy’s interim guidance.

For a start, the board should reverse last week’s policy change.