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Our Opinion: Free speech wins in school board’s comment policy

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Censorship is no longer on the agenda for Johnston County school board meetings.

In a victory for free speech and open government, the county Board of Education approved a new public comment policy Nov. 12 that eliminates restrictions on discussing Johnston County Public Schools staff members at the people’s podium.

A previous version of the rules presented at the board’s Sept. 10 meeting included a blanket ban on comments that involve personnel matters. As we’ve explained in this space before, that broad limitation would have violated the First Amendment. Thankfully, your school board scrapped that provision before voting on the public comment policy this month.

After Assistant Superintendent David Pearce presented a new working draft of the rules intended for information only, Vice Chairwoman Peggy Smith made the wise decision to call for an immediate vote.

The policy passed unanimously, and it’s one stakeholders, parents and school board members can all celebrate.

Replacing a ban on discussing school personnel is language urging parents with complaints about principals or teachers to follow JCPS’ formal dispute resolution process instead of airing concerns during school board meetings.

“Complaints and concerns about students or staff members are best addressed through the available grievance policy other than public comments, as a grievance policy provides an alternative for resolution while protecting individual privacy rights,” the new public comment rules state.

The school board is within its rights to express an institutional preference for the district’s grievance process over public comments. Indeed, we agree that this is often the best way to resolve school-level issues. But parents who aren’t satisfied with the progress or outcome of their grievances retain the right to address their elected representatives during public meetings.

It’s a simple matter of accountability. School stakeholders don’t have any direct influence over principals, administrators and the superintendent. But those employees answer to the Board of Education, and school board members ultimately answer to the voters. Lines of communication between elected officials and their constituents must remain open.

This month’s vote closes the chapter on a free speech controversy that began in May when the Johnston County Education Summit’s Reginald Holley was censored while reading prepared remarks from the podium. Holley and fellow group members were concerned that then-Superintendent Ross Renfrow and his administration were marginalizing African American leaders by transferring then from principalships to central office jobs they never sought.

Holley wasn’t allowed to name names, and school board Chairman Mike Wooten initially cited a ban on addressing personnel matters. However, the board allowed fellow Education Summit member Robert O’Neal to read the full text, with names and all, at the following month’s meeting. Wooten then said the reason Holley was censored was because he was reading a statement that differed from the one submitted to the school board in advance.

There was no lawfully defensible reason to require prior review of speakers’ comments. School board members recognized this, as the new and improved public comment policy eliminates the transcript screening requirement.

Your school board also did away with a needless rule requiring speakers to sign up 48 hours before each regularly scheduled meeting.

“The new policy has less restrictions on public comment than the previous policy did,” Interim Superintendent Jim Causby told Johnstonian News reporter Steve Reed. “Signing up to speak is much simpler now with individuals only having to sign up prior to the meeting with no requirement that any statements be reviewed prior to presentation. Also, while the policy requests that personnel or student issues be handled through official administrative avenues, the policy does not prohibit such comments.”

We cheer the new rules for their constitutional compliance and the spirit of openness they instill on our school board. The Johnston County Board of Education made the right call.

“I appreciate the policy review committee going back to the drawing board and tweaking it a little bit more, and listening to people’s comments, board member Teresa Grant said during the meeting.

School board members deserve gratitude for listening to their constituents and writing the public comment policy with their input in mind.

The Johnston County Board of Education finally has a public comment policy worthy of the trust and confidence county residents place in their public schools. Congratulations to all on achieving this positive change.