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Our Opinion: Will school board support censorship and oppose parents?

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You trusted Mike Wooten, Peggy Smith, Teresa Grant and Ronald Johnson when you voted for them in 2016. Two years later, you gave Terri Sessoms, Todd Sutton and Tracie Zukowski your vote of confidence.

But these seven school board members are showing that they don’t trust you, the parents, community members and stakeholders of Johnston County Public Schools. They aren’t willing to listen to you. They fear what you might have to say.

Why else would they muzzle you at the people’s podium? These elected officials work for you, yet they think it’s their job to censor your remarks during time reserved for public comment at their monthly meetings.

The Johnston County Board of Education released a draft update to its public comment policy during its Sept. 10 meeting following widespread criticism of its current rules. The new policy is an improvement, but it still restricts the topics you can address in ways that violate the First Amendment.

While you now must sign up 48 hours prior to each school board meeting in order to speak, the new rules would allow same-day registration. That’s a baby step in the right direction, but neither the school board nor its attorney, Jimmy Lawrence, can explain why speakers should have to register at all. Other public bodies — most notably the Johnston County Board of Commissioners — allow you to address them by simply waiting your turn and taking the podium during the meeting.

The board also plans to relax its requirement that speakers read prepared remarks and provide school system staff with full transcripts in advance. The new policy requires you to describe the topic you plan to address, but you’d no longer have to furnish a written draft like you’re a high school student handing in a term paper.

Streamlining the signup process and loosening the transcript rule are positive developments that allow for a little more freedom, though no advance registration is necessary and speakers shouldn’t have to identify what they plan to address at all.

School board members plan to double down on a blatantly unconstitutional rule barring you from addressing “performance of school personnel.” In fact, Johnston County is doing its level best to make this heavy-handed policy even more restrictive.

“Since negative comments are not allowed, positive will not be allowed either,” David Pearce, the school system’s administrative officer, explained during the Sept. 10 meeting.

No public praise for the winning football coach or congratulating the district Teacher of the Year. That’s strictly verboten.

Your school board knows it can’t allow compliments and forbid complaints. Members are so fearful of public criticism that they’d rather we all pretend Johnston County Public Schools has no individual employees with names and titles.

Can elected officials really stop you from talking about, say, a principal’s performance? In a word: No.

The school board and its attorney are purposefully misreading a North Carolina law that limits discussion of personnel matters. That restriction applies to the board and staff — not you.

“Parents have no obligation under personnel statutes,” explained Amanda Martin, general counsel for the North Carolina Press Association. “They do not have the authority, in my opinion, to censor what parents say. If they want to discuss what they have heard, they have some latitude to go into closed session.”

If school board Chairman Mike Wooten stops you from talking about a district staff member — whether your comments are positive, negative or neutral — he will be knowingly infringing on your First Amendment right to free speech. Local rules don’t supersede the U.S. Constitution.

A vote on the new public comment policy is expected at the school board’s Oct. 10 meeting. If your elected officials pass this unlawful rule, they’ll be telling you with their votes that they don’t trust you, don’t want to hear from you and don’t care what you have to say.

Tell your representatives to reject censorship and demand open dialogue at the people’s podium.

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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