Let’s be clear: Every Minnesota school district offers opportunities for the public to engage with the district and the school board. To use the Star Tribune Editorial Board’s own words in a recent editorial (“Stop silencing public input,” Jan. 16), “public input” to the school board occurs in each and every district through letters, phone calls, emails, texts, meetings and other ways that offer ideas, criticisms, questions and compliments to our public schools and their elected officials. This is good and will continue.
Public input is welcome. School boards encourage and invite public input. It occurs every day. Public input — the community sharing its thoughts with its elected board members — is valuable and important to protect.
It is critically important to note that the editorial was about public input, not parental involvement in their children’s education. Minnesota’s schools demonstrate the deep value they place upon parental involvement by offering a wide range of opportunities for parents to be engaged meaningfully in their children’s education and to talk with school board members. Hearing from, working with, and supporting parents and families is essential for our students.
But the editorial does not focus upon public input, nor does it include parental involvement. It is not about the community sharing its thoughts with a school district or a school board. Rather, the editorial’s claim is that individuals should be able to use the school board’s public comment period to broadcast their thoughts to an audience that is not at the school board meeting.
By calling upon school boards to create a right for individuals to broadcast their views at a public meeting, the editorial does not address the very real ways in which school board meetings are unlike the meetings of other public bodies. School boards work with school administration and staff to do all they can to provide a safe, nonthreatening environment in which students can learn and thrive. Schools are legally and ethically required to prevent discrimination, harassment, violence, bullying and other actions (including speech) that may attack students and undermine a safe environment.
The great majority of community members speaking at public meetings do so appropriately. Sadly, however, we all know of the increasing number of examples in which a small number of individuals have used the school board public comment period to engage in speech that violates reasonable expectations. Speakers have questioned, criticized or attacked students. Others have used the public comment period to express broad political positions that are unrelated to school district matters and which resulted in harm within the school community.
For these reasons and more, some school boards have experimented with alternative means for encouraging public input from the community without subjecting students and others to verbal abuse that is then broadcast without boundaries.
The essence of the issue is this: Should Minnesota school boards — all of which offer multiple means of providing public input — be required to broadcast speech and positions that may undermine the district’s responsibilities to its students, staff, and the community?
Should schools be legally required to provide a public megaphone to individuals who want to speak, regardless of whether the speech has any relationship to the school district and without consideration of whether the speech harms students and others?
Public input is valuable and valued. Let’s take care before pursuing fundamental changes that expose students and others to harm.
Kirk Schneidawind is executive director, Minnesota School Boards Association.