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Opposing RCS Proposed Public Engagement Rules, Alternatives Offered

Intro

Rutherford Students First opposes the proposed changes to the public engagement rules at Rutherford County Board of Education meetings. The practical reasons are outlined below, along with an explanation for why we oppose the Board’s changes.

Beyond our opposition, we have also provided an alternative policy which would address the basic problems the Board is attempting to solve without inhibiting anyone’s rights.

Why Do We Oppose the Board’s Proposed Policy?

As any school board considers new policies or changes to existing policies, some core philosophical questions should always be asked. One of those questions revolves around the appropriate role of parents in a child’s education.

Rutherford Students First believes that parents are 100% responsible for their children’s education. Because the parents possess that responsibility, it is their choice to have other people help with educating their children or not. They can choose to educate their children themselves or confer that responsibility to someone else through a private school, co-op, virtual school, charter school, or traditional government school.

Complicating this responsibility of educating our children is the fact that through taxes, parents are required to pay for government schools. Parents also publicly elect the school board members for government schools.

For these reasons, parents have both a responsibility and a right to engage in any decisions that affect our children while attending government schools: curriculum, healthcare decisions, spending, facilities, etc, etc. And because the parents have the educational responsibility, pay for the government schools through taxes, and elect the school board members, the Board has a responsibility to listen to parents.

Further informing the relationship between parents and the school Board is the fact that we all have a right to free speech. A protection of that right to free speech was codified in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which no state or local governmental body can ignore.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Local Education Agencies (school boards) are the local government entities given authority by the state of Tennessee and County Commission to oversee government schools. Parents unquestionably have a right to petition these school boards when they have grievances.

Explaining the Opposition to Each Policy Change

With the “why” parents have a right to address school boards as prologue, consider the Rutherford County Board of Education’s proposed changes to the policy of “Appeals to and Appearances Before the Board.” These are the 5 changes RSF finds particularly problematic:

  1. RCS proposed change: visitors must request to speak no later than 2 days before the meeting. (Current RCS policy allows visitors to submit a request form to speak at the Board meeting as late as 15 minutes before the meeting.)

Reason for RSF opposition to this proposal:
The agenda for each meeting is only posted 5 calendar days before the meeting, which means that a visitor would only have from Saturday to Tuesday to contemplate whether he wanted to speak before the Board, and 2 of those days are weekend days when the RCS offices are closed. Furthermore, Board work sessions are held on Mondays or Tuesdays. If this proposed policy change is adopted, a visitor has–at best–24 hours to:
– watch a Monday work session;
– connect with his respective Board representative and discuss any concerns;
– decide to speak at the Thursday meeting;
– submit the visitor form;
– and, make necessary personal arrangements in order to appear in person at 5pm on Thursday.

A 24-hour turnaround is simply too little time for any serious deliberation and discussion between Board representatives and their constituents, not to mention the time lost if there are missed phone calls, conflicting schedules, etc. In the worst case scenario, if the work session is held on Tuesday, the deadline to request to speak will have already passed, and the visitor will have NO opportunity to address the Board.

This proposed change does not foster community engagement but rather makes it more difficult to engage with the Board, and therefore it should be opposed.

  1. RCS proposed change: speakers from the same organization should pick a single speaker to represent them (no such limitation currently).

Reason for RSF opposition to this proposal:
Apart from the likely First Amendment violation, there are practical problems with such a policy. What defines people speaking from the same organization? Are two people who happened to be members of the same church in violation of the policy? What if two teachers are REA members and speaking on two unrelated topics? Is an organization a Facebook Group, an incorporated entity, or an employer? What about a contractor? How about two RCS employees? The list of potential conflicts is practically endless.

The simple truth is that people (regardless of organizational membership or any association of any kind) have a right to address the Board. By implementing such a rule, RCS would be silencing the voice of parents, and denying them the right to speak to government officials on matters related to their own children.

  1. RCS proposed change: posters and signs are not allowed at school board meetings (no such limitation currently).

Reason for RSF opposition to this proposal:
This is a clear First Amendment violation. Free speech can’t be limited by medium in this way. There is no justifiable reason to prohibit signs and posters. With regards to practical considerations in a room with a finite amount of space, posters and signs should never block someone’s view or access to the meeting in any way.

Asking a person with a giant poster to stand in the back of the room, behind other attendees is a reasonable request. Prohibiting that same person from bringing the poster at all is violating their right to free speech.

  1. The chairman can have a speaker removed if the speaker is making repetitive comments already made by other speakers (no such limitation currently).

Reason for RSF opposition to this proposal:
Perhaps the worst proposal in the bunch, this idea is extremely subjective and ripe for abuse.

What one person considers repetitive, another could consider insightful or nuanced. The Board has no right to inhibit a person’s speech in this way. It would become too easy for a Board to shut down a parent by subjectively labeling the parent’s words as “repetitive.” And, yes–it’s a First Amendment violation because it is prohibiting a person from peacefully addressing an elected official.

  1. Must provide proof of Rutherford County residence when you request to be a speaker (no such limitation currently).

Reason for RSF opposition to this proposal:
This rule implies that all information fit for consumption by the Board resides in individuals living in Rutherford County. There is information and opinion from experts, friends, community leaders, educators, business leaders, elected officials, and countless others that could have valuable perspective and information for the Board. There is some fantastic research, analysis, and experimentation with education happening all over the US, and even in surrounding counties. From leaders of charter schools to heads of think tanks, we have experts right in Nashville who would be prohibited from speaking under this unnecessary rule.

The Real Problem

The Board’s proposed policies are clearly in response to heightened engagement and tension at Board meetings throughout 2021.

It appears the Board is seeking the collective punishment of the entire community simply because a few people have done disruptive things.

Rutherford Students First believes the RCS Board should focus only on the individual who initiates disruptive behavior and avoid any rules that could be abused in the future, and avoid any rules that weaken a parent’s voice or inhibit their rights.

So what should be done?

RSF Proposed Policy Changes

Edited RCS policies can be found here and here, but the 3 substantive topical areas are summarized here:

  1. Submitting a form to speak, allowing for speakers in the order the form was received, and limiting a speaker’s time.
    – The current visitor speaking time is set at 30 minutes, with 3 minutes per speaker, which provides time for just 10 speakers.
    – RSF would like to see the set time expanded to at least one hour, and give speakers 4 minutes each. RSF understands the practical reason to have a set time for all visitors and a per speaker time limit, but we want to see the public engagement time expanded in both time and opportunity.
    – If a speaker runs over their time, they are delaying the meeting and preventing others from speaking. It is appropriate to have them escorted out of the meeting for this disruption.
  2. Truthfully identifying a speaker.
    – To ensure a person is honest, providing an ID that matches their name is a reasonable request. It does not inhibit their right to speak, and it provides transparency for all engaged in the process.
    – Once RCS has identified the person when the speaking form is submitted, their address and information does not need to be mentioned publicly.
  3. Disruption, noise, and bad behavior.
    – RSF does not want any speaker or Board member prohibited from speaking due to intentionally disruptive behavior, which would include physical or verbal intervention of a person speaking. This behavior inhibits the rights of others, and is not appropriate. It is appropriate to have a person escorted out of the meeting for this disruption.
    – But it is important to note, a simple emotional response to a speaker or Board member’s comments are not disruptions. Briefly clapping after a person speaks is different than extended clapping or cheering which delays the meeting. A brief groan or laugh at a speaker’s comment is entirely different than booing or shouting at a speaker to the point of inhibiting their speech. It is the inhibition of the speaker or meeting that is the problem, not brief emotional reactions. Such a distinction is important.

Conclusion

It is very possible to create rules which inhibit disruptive behavior, but do not create a path to subjective decision making or rights inhibiting behavior by current or future Board members. The RCS Board should make every policy decision with these ideas in mind today and in the future.

Rutherford Students First started this school year with a desire to engage in discussion and take part in problem solving with the Board. We remain committed to a collaborative process between parents and RCS elected officials. For that reason, we offer our critique of the proposed policies AND offer solutions.

In an upcoming policy proposal, RSF will outline a new process for conducting Board meetings which focuses on collaboration with parents and community.

Thank you,

The Parents of Rutherford Students First