Douglas County School District

School board proposes new change to public comment

Proposal would limit input to items posted on meeting agenda

By Jane Reuter
Posted

A proposed change to the public comment portion of the Douglas County School Board of Education meetings prompted one concerned board member to read a portion of the First Amendment, and one of the board's strongest supporters to speak against the idea. The board nevertheless moved a step closer to implementing the change during a special March 18 meeting.

It will review the idea again during a March 25 meeting.

Under the proposal, public comment during regular meetings would be focused on action items set for a vote during each meeting.

That would disallow the general public comment - much of which is critical of the board - now included as a regular agenda item.

Other opportunities for comment, defined in the proposed new policy as public input "on topics related to the operation of the schools," will be provided during meetings similar to the March 3 Board Unplugged held at Parker's Cimarron Middle School. There, school leaders held a presentation on the budget and capital improvement projects followed by group discussion and comment on that subject.

Those "public input sessions shall not be considered official meetings of the board," unless they meet all requirements of a meeting under the law, according to the proposal. No board action is planned at the public input sessions.

Presented as a way to make board meetings more orderly and efficient, the proposal concerned some board members and outraged several residents.

Though board member Meghann Silverthorn later voted with the rest of the board to move the proposal forward to a second reading during the March 25 meeting, she read a portion of the First Amendment to underscore her concern about it.

"I think a lot of folks question whether public comment is the First Amendment," she said. "I believe it to be so. I don't support any attempt to confine that beyond what we already have."

Silverthorn read a statement from absent board member Judi Reynolds, who also opposed the new policy.

"Public comment is a time-honored format that allows citizens to provide input to public entities," Silverhtorn read from Reynold's statement, adding it is "... a community's opportunity to speak to us as public officials, and our obligation is to listen."

Board member Craig Richardson disagreed and supported the proposed new format.

"I believe this proposal adds to the efficiency of the people's business," he said. "As for the contention that this somehow is a First Amendment issue, there's simply no legal basis for that view. This is a practice that's common throughout government at all levels."

Larsen emphasized that the policy isn't set in stone.

"I think we would be wise to revisit how it's done at the end of our school year no matter what," he said. "We are looking for other venues and other methods to be reached and interact.

"I think the experience of late has been the tendency is for some to give an on-topic, productive comment and then someone uses it as a platform to talk about something else. That's been the challenge and I think we're trying to find a way that makes the conversations that we're having on topic ... while still maintaining our ability to be open to other ways of being reached."

Three community members spoke against any restriction of public comment.

"To me, this is the most important vote potentially this board has ever taken," said David DiCarlo, traditionally a vehement board supporter. "The reason is it is the First Amendment. I don't always like what my neighbors have to say - and I can bet they don't often like what I have to say - but I would die for their right to say it."

"I'm continually amazed at how you are able to chip away at transparency, accountability and trust of the community," said Cindy Barnard, a plaintiff in the DCSD voucher case and frequent board critic. "You can do whatever you want. The seven of you answer to no one.

"We the public hope you will begin to do what you said you were going to do when you became president of this board - that you would send out an olive branch," she said, addressing Larsen. "We're still waiting for that olive branch."

Geddes suggested the board "hold off a month" on a vote, until the new District F board member is seated.

"Clearly director Reynolds feels strongly about it, and I'm uncomfortable about it that she's not here," he said. "And we will have a new person a week from now. So I think we ought to wait."

The board instead moved to consider the March 18 meeting a first reading, moving it to the March 25 agenda for a second reading and final vote.