Sunday, November 23, 2014

Buffalo Schools at the Crossroads: What’s next? Threat to Freedom of Speech?

November 9, 2014

It doesn’t stop!  From disassembling the school district to dismantling the structure of school board meetings, members of the new Board majority continue to execute an agenda that supports their “vision” for the District.  The opportunity for parents, students and other stakeholders to exercise their freedom of speech rights at Board meetings is at the heart of the latter issue.

Majority Board members and the Interim Superintendent, Mr. Ogilvie are moving toward making sweeping changes in the structure of Board meetings, initially focusing attention on the Public Comments Section of the meetings.  Mr. Quinn signaled this intent at the November 5th Board meeting when he observed that this aspect of the meeting was unproductive.  He went on to describe many of the speakers as “political plants” implying that they represented a faction not aligned with his and that their comments were orchestrated. 

Since the new Board took office, Mr. Quinn has questioned the continuance of the Public Comment item on the official Board Agenda.  In fact, a move to eliminate the opportunity for public input would have occurred much sooner if minority members had not cited the Board’s Bylaws, which define and mandate the current meeting structure.  Board Policy 1513 allows up to 30 speakers, each of whom can have 3 minutes to make their statements.  If all 30 slots are taken, the Board meeting can be extended by an hour and a half or more.  That’s much more time than some members of the majority want to spend listening to the “complaints” and “unproductive” appeals of the populace.

While he alleges that there are more productive ways for stakeholders to express their opinions, Mr. Quinn has ignored my response to his concerns and comments.  I’ve pointed out many “productive” strategies that Board members can and should use to invite public feedback.  These include the Board’s regular committee meetings.  Held twice a month totaling eight hours, these meetings are essentially work sessions, open to the public and flexible to allow discourse between Board, staff and community members.  In addition, Board members are requested to act as liaison members with various other Board committees, such as the Special Education Parents Advisory Committee (SEPAC), the Health & Wellness Committee, the Multicultural Education Advisory Committee (MEAC).  And Board members can host community meetings/forums on timely issues.  Frankly, there are more “productive” ways to engage stakeholders if Board members are seriously interested and will put in the time.  But I don’t see Mr. Quinn taking advantage of any of these strategies.

I will agree with Mr. Quinn on one thing regarding the Public Comments period. There is a need for all speakers to act responsibly and to be accountable for delivering their comments respectfully.  However, at this point in time the tone and tenor of the public’s comments reflect that of certain members of the Board.  As with many other issues, the Board itself needs to take a leadership role before it can demand change from members of the public.  It’s hypocritical and disingenuous to demand civility from speakers when Carl Paladino is allowed to denigrate Board and staff members via email and Facebook assaults.  His behavior is treated with silent consent.

And before freedom of speech at the Board meetings is tampered with, I suggest that majority Board members and Mr. Ogilvie take advantage of all the other, “productive” ways to engage public comment.

No comments:

Post a Comment