Here we go again.
Just when things seemed to be settling down a bit, another controversy erupted with the Gilbert School Board.
Dr. Jim Rice, the newest interim superintendent (the previous one resigned because he “couldn’t give the board the assistance they need”), must see part of his job to be repairing the school district’s reputation.
So he regularly corresponds with employees via email, extolling the virtues of various departments. He’s instituted a “vlog,” a monthly video blog announcing the many achievements of students and employees. And he has a “Top Happenings” at each board meeting, wherein he explains the awards students and teachers earn.
All good things. He should be commended for them. Gilbert is, after all, a great district by all measures.
But he took it one step further, and the storm erupted again.
At the early April meeting, he surprised the audience with new guidelines about public speaking. Prior to the changes, Gilbert had one of the most open lines of communications with the public during board meetings. Not only did meetings have a “Request to speak” portion of the agenda — where the public could bring up anything related to the district, within a three-minute time period — the board also took public comment during agenda items.
Now, Dr. Rice has limited the entire time for public speaking to just the “Request to speak” portion of the meeting. And he’s limited that to 30 minutes, total. And people with comments on agenda items get priority in speaking. And if there are more speakers than time allotted? Tough luck for them.
Why did he do this?
Easy answer. Damage control. As he admitted in a Ch. 3 interview, the board meetings have made the district look absurd. He related a story about a group of Gilbert teachers at a state conference, that when they were introduced, there was “snickering and laughter,” and they were told that the board meetings are “great entertainment to watch.”
He also told the media that past conversations between the public and board during those meetings “are negatively impacting the school district and the Town of Gilbert.”
So his solution was to limit those “conversations.”
But the conversations aren’t the problem. The cause of those conversations is what creates the controversy.
The public comments — often angry, often accusatory, almost always directed at three members — don’t happen in a vacuum.
In fact, the community members who comment during these meetings have been reacting to the behavior of board members Staci Burk, Julie Smith and Daryl Colvin, and the results of that behavior.
Behavior that’s led to the resignation or retirement of the entire superintendency. Behavior that led the first interim superintendent to resign early. Behavior that led to the Apple debacle, which almost cost the East Valley the Apple subsidiary in East Mesa, one that will lower Gilbert residents’ taxes. Behavior that stalled the search for a new superintendent because at least two of the board majority submitted a new name at the last minute, a person with no educational experience but who was a friend of those members. Behavior that’s led to the Board notifying the state that the district doesn’t “comply” with the state College and Career Readiness Standards even as Gilbert teachers use those standards daily in class. Behavior that’s led to the board majority endorsing a voucher plan that could bleed money from the district and result in teachers losing their jobs.
Behavior that leads to hours-long, fractious meetings.
None of that was caused by the public. The “conversations” Dr. Rice finds so disturbing emanate from the often reckless behavior of the three board members.
Dr. Rice got a taste of that at a recent meeting, when the Board President, Ms. Burk, insisted on proceeding with a description of a police investigation currently underway. When Dr. Rice asked her to move on, Ms. Burk cut him off with a sharp remark.
So Dr. Rice has restricted public speech at board meetings, limiting the free speech of our community, hoping to put a better face on the board.
Here’s what’s surprising, though: The three board members who’ve caused all this also are the three who loudly and always trumpet the idea of “transparency” and “communication with the public.”
So what has the reaction from Burk, Colvin and Smith been to the free speech limits?
Silence. Not a peep. No discussion at a board meeting of it.
This is particularly striking for Mr. Colvin, because many times he has invoked the Founding Fathers in comments he’s made to the board, men who felt that free speech should be the First Amendment to the Constitution because of its importance to a free society.
But here, now? Mr. Colvin’s mute, seemingly a silent support of speech suppression.
A solution? How about at the very least putting Dr. Rice’s policy change on the next board meeting agenda, so the public can hear — in a very transparent way — the board members’ views of those changes? And the board can have another of those conversations with the public, the ones Dr. Rice is so fearful of.
Otherwise, it appears that Ms. Burk, Ms. Smith and Mr. Colvin are the ones living in fear. Fear of free speech. And fear of their own behavior.
• Mike McClellan is a Gilbert resident and former English teacher at Dobson High School in Mesa.