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Our Opinion: School board rule would censor your complaints, praise

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Bennett Jones is back at Clayton High School’s helm — thanks in no small part to months of sustained advocacy from parents, students and prominent community members. But the Johnston County Board of Education wants to silence school stakeholders’ voice.

Kim Winslow, a leader in the informal “Bring Bennett Back” movement organized after former Superintendent Ross Renfrow sidelined the popular principal to a central office job, spoke in Jones’ defense from the podium during school board meetings. A new public comment policy would stop her and other parents from making similar appeals.

The new rules awaiting adoption forbid any discussion of “performance of school personnel,” Johnston County Public Schools Assistant Superintendent David Pearce explained at the school board’s Sept. 10 meeting. While that provision seems intended to short-circuit public criticism, it also prevents praise.

“Since negative comments are not allowed, positive will not be allowed either,” Pearce explained.

That means no words of support for JCPS employees who are dismissed, suspended or transferred and no alerting the school board to complaints about principals or school controversies.

School board members are your elected representatives, but they don’t want to hear your concerns. They’d rather pass the buck to Johnston County Public Schools’ administrative bureaucracy. Instead of airing grievances in public, they want you to fill out forms and wait in line.

The proposed policy requires complaints about school personnel and student issues to be “submitted to the school system official responsible for the program or to the superintendent.”

If you’re not satisfied with the outcome, the school board still won’t deign to hear from you.

“They can then follow Board Policy 5240, ‘Employee Grievance Policy’ and Board Policy 4300, ‘Student and Parent Grievances,’” Pearce explained during the Sept. 10 meeting.

An administrative complaint and appeals process is necessary, but it doesn’t replace unfiltered comments from the people’s podium. Many parents would avail themselves of both opportunities. Channeling all complaints to the grievance process sweeps them under the rug, frustrating efforts to hold school administrators — and the elected officials who oversee them — accountable in a public forum.

Silencing parents isn’t just wrong. It’s illegal. The restrictions your school board has proposed violate the First Amendment and could put JCPS in jeopardy of wasting taxpayer money to defend a free-speech lawsuit. Your school system is $10 million in the red. It can’t afford to wage a losing battle in federal court.

“A public comment period at a public school board meeting is a designated public forum,” Vanderbilt University law professor and First Amendment Center ombudsman David L. Hudson Jr. explains. “Thus, content-based restrictions on speech in such a forum are problematic and probably unconstitutional. Government officials often try to shut down speech that they don’t want to hear. I think the parents should be able to voice their opinions.”

If the school board won’t let you name a principal, teacher or coach from the podium, we’ll no longer name its members in the newspaper. News stories could identify these officials by title but not by name (the school board chairman, the District 3 representative) or include only the first letters of their first and last names (Chairman M--- W-----, Vice Chairwoman P---- S----.)

We’ll extend the same courtesy to board counsel J---- L-------, an attorney who thus far has failed to rein in his clients’ censorious impulses. But we’ll exempt Interim Superintendent Jim Causby. This wrongheaded policy isn’t his doing.

If elected officials want credit for their work in the Johnstonian News, they must allow JCPS employees to receive credit for theirs during time reserved for public comment. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

There’s still time to call, write and email your school board members and ask them to abandon unlawful censorship by rejecting the proposed public comment policy. If they refuse to listen, this listing may be the last time their names appear in our pages.

CONTACT YOUR SCHOOL BOARD

• Chairman Mike Wooten, 224 Cedar Springs Drive, Princeton, NC, 27569, 919-934-6032, ext. 7371, pwooten883@aol.com

• Vice Chairwoman Peggy Smith, 202 Stancil Road, Angier, NC, 27501, 919-934-6032, ext. 7372, psmith@campbell.edu

• Teresa Grant, 8804 Crestwood Court, Garner, NC, 27529, 919-934-6032, ext. 7373, teresagrant@johnston.k12.nc.us

• Ronald Johnson, 423 Westminster Drive, Clayton, NC 27520, 919-934-6032, ext. 7374, ronjon1983@msn.com

• Terri Sessoms, P.O. Box 449, Smithfield, NC 27577, 919-934-6032, ext. 7375, terrisessoms@johnston.k12.nc.us

• Todd Sutton, 10298 Old Beulah Road, Kenly, NC 27524, 919-934-6032, ext. 7376, toddsutton@johnston.k12.nc.us

• Tracie Zukowski, 180 Running Springs Court, Clayton, NC 27527, 919-934-6032, ext. 7377, traciezukowski@johnston.k12.nc.us

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