Free speech, every time

Published 9:51 am Friday, January 16, 2015

At a recent meeting of the Franklin City Public School Board, something happened that made me think a little about the First Amendment. No, I do not believe the board violated anyone’s free speech rights, but the occurrence did bring to mind a national trend of public officials hiding behind personnel.

Back in December, the school board was hearing concerns from the community about a recent development with the gifted program. When J.P. King’s Patti Rabil retired effective that month, the division opted to not replace her as a gifted teacher. Instead, the system will place all of load of the gifted program on S.P. Morton’s Liz Burgess.

Many parents of gifted students were not happy, as they feel the program has enough going for it that two teachers are needed for the approximately 100 gifted students in the system.

Unfortunately, the way the rules for citizens’ time are written for the school board, you can’t mention someone in the system by name, nor can you say something that would effectively identify who that person is.

For example, back when concerns were flaring in the community about firing Dr. Michelle Belle, community members could not mention her by name, nor say superintendent. They had to talk around the issue or get told that their speech would not be allowed.

In this instance, even if a parent wanted to praise Rabil for how great of a job she did, and wonder how Burgess would do it by herself, they could not or the school board chair would shut them down. They were left saying vague things about how important the gifted program is to their children.

Personnel law is often abused by boards across the country. The basics of the law is that it exists so that the board can protect the privacy of an individual. That is very important. However, it does not exist to conceal what should be the people’s business, nor does it exist to stifle something already in the public domain.

The superintendent is a public figure, and the hiring or firing of a superintendent is perhaps the most important decision a board will make, and it’s definitely the public’s business. Time and time again, court orders have required school boards to move discussions about the hiring and firing of superintendents from closed to open session.

That’s a bigger issue than citizens’ time. However, concerning the public, the board does itself a collective disservice by only allowing people to speak on certain issues such as a superintendent in vague terms.

As for the gifted program, that’s also something that the school board should listen to from the public, and they did, for the most part. Though some parents had to skirt around what they really wanted to say, and one former Franklin student in the gifted program was not allowed to speak because he no longer had a Franklin address.

However, Mrs. Rabil’s former role in the schools is well documented in the public domain. It’s hard to picture a good reason to not be able to identify her, as confidentiality is about protecting privacy issues not of public concern or record.

Now, unless it’s newsworthy, the school board should not discuss her performance review. But why can’t a parent talk about the job Mrs. Rabil did and how it’s going to be tough for one teacher to add even more work onto her already overloaded shoulders?

During the similar segment that city council has at its meetings, residents have been able to identify City Manager Randy Martin in regard to experiences they have had with him, not all of them positive.

Perhaps it opens up a can of worms in regard to schools that I’m not considering, but I tend to lean toward free speech, every time, as a fairly sound policy.

Even if you end up discarding everything one person says, you tend to grow and learn a lot more by listening to rather than silencing speech in the long term, no matter how unpleasant it might be to hear.

The public benefits a lot from open discussion, as well. Often, board members have wondered why the public doesn’t seem to understand or isn’t interested in getting involved. Well, how can they when the response to questions, if one is given at all, is often, “I can’t discuss that. That’s a personnel matter.”

Why show up to a public forum to give your thoughts if it’s the equivalent of beating your head against a brick wall to get to the other side?

Cain Madden is the Managing Editor of The Tidewater News. He can be reached at 562-3187 or