Parents addressing a school board for the first time are frequently perturbed to learn board members cannot respond to their concerns. Though school boards aren’t required to allow public comment at their meetings, most of them do.
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“Boards want to hear from their constituents, and 'call to the public’ is a way for people to participate,” said Ed Moore, board president of the Higley Unified School District.
If public comment is allowed, it will be on the agenda as call to the public, “request to speak,” “citizens’ comments” or something similar.
But if a parent or community member speaks on an issue that’s not on the agenda, the board cannot respond.
An individual board member, however, “may respond to criticism made by those who have addressed the public body, may ask staff to review a matter, or may ask that a matter be put on a future agenda,” according to the Arizona School Boards Association Web site.
“If they do have a call to the public, the First Amendment protects the speech rights of the speaker,” said Chris Thomas, director of legal services for the association. “While the board can put forth time, place and manner restrictions — (such as setting) a time limit or asking them to refrain from profanity — they can’t censor content or the viewpoint of the speaker.”
Thomas said parents have a right to criticize school employees as long as they don’t use abusive language.
“The board can inform the speaker if they were to say something that was defamatory, they can be sued for defamation,” Thomas said. “Sometimes that makes them realize you can’t just say anything and not be able to back it up.”
Boards can limit the amount of time set aside for public comment, require speakers to identify themselves so they are recorded in the minutes, ask them to refrain from obscenities and abusive language, and ask speakers to sign in ahead of time.
Boards typically set a three-minute time limit per person and some set a time limit per topic.
Charlotte Patterson, board president of Chandler Unified School District, said the Chandler board doesn’t set a timeline per topic, but if comments become repetitious, board members ask that comments be limited to those who have something new to add.
Patterson noted that public comment during a meeting is just one of several ways for the public to communicate with the board.
Thomas said speaking at a board meeting is not always the best way for parents to deal with problems, and suggested parents try to resolve issues at the closest level first.
“If the problem is with the child’s classroom, start with the teacher, then the principal, then the superintendent,” he said. “After going through all these steps, if you’re still not satisfied, then go to the governing board. The governing board is not the place to start in most instances.”
But parents should not be apprehensive about approaching the board.
“These are their schools,” Thomas said. “They should never feel like an outsider. We have public governance in schools for a reason. (The board is) meant to represent them.”