LACONIA — Last week’s school board meeting ushered in sudden changes and limits to public comment period that some audience members say caught them off guard and resulted in shouts, insults and accusations – and prompted the board to call a recess to regroup.
It’s a scenario that is not unheard of in school board meetings around the state, particularly as boards and administrators grapple with changes post-COVID and adjusting protocols to new or relaxed rules, said William Phillips, a lawyer and policy expert for the New Hampshire School Boards Association. Retooling public comment periods at the start of the meeting, while not optimal or recommended, does not violate regulations that govern school boards, which need flexibility in how their meetings are conducted, Phillips said. No specific advance notice of agenda or protocol change is required by law, he said.
But limitations on public input remain a thorny issue – one that tests details of the state’s Right to Know law as well as the federal Freedom of Information Act, Phillips said. While NH RSA 91-A mandates publication of meeting minutes and posting of meeting time and place, it doesn’t mandate advance warning of last-minute changes to the agenda or to a meeting’s format. It doesn’t even guarantee opportunities for public comment, although they are customary and expected in New Hampshire school districts, Phillips said.
“School boards need an ability to respond to developing circumstances,” said Phillips. “We advise that any time you change something like that, you give some notice. It’s certainly the expectation of the public to address the school board. But it’s also up to the school board to manage their duties and time and get the work done that they need to complete.”
“It’s not a meeting of the public, it’s a meeting that occurs in public,” Phillips said. “Right to Know requires it to be open to the public, but it doesn’t require the right of the public to speak. District to district, you’ll find different policies on how it’s done. Changing it on the fly, certainly over the last year, with various issues, there have been a lot of needs to do that” as schools adapted to the pandemic and public meetings switched to online formats, then back to in-person sessions, or a hybrid of both.
At the start of last week’s meeting, School Board Chair Heather Lounsbury announced that public comment about general topics would be limited only to the public comment period at the beginning of the meeting. Input on a later public comment period would be limited to agenda items only, with three minutes allowed for each speaker.
That was a change from the board's recent practice of allowing two periods for public comment on any topic. The shift mimics the way meetings are conducted by the Laconia City Council, and was school board protocol in past years, Lounsbury said.
If a meeting becomes unruly or public comments become rude, inappropriate or disruptive, including over Zoom, and board members feel they can’t discuss or act on agenda items, they’re permitted to recess or adjourn and go 永续合约交易所_永续合约怎么home, Phillips said – as long as they don’t discuss school board business during the break.
The rules need to be applied equally to everyone. “We are going to allow you to express your viewpoint even if we don’t like your viewpoint, but the limits have to be viewpoint neutral,” not favoring one over another, Phillips said. “You can suspend public comment as long as it applies to everybody.”
Partway through the June 15 meeting, Lounsbury called a 15-minute recess, and she and Aaron Hayward, Laura Dunn, Joe Cormier and Superintendent Steven Tucker left the meeting at the Huot Technical Center, while members Dawn Johnson, Nick Grenon and Murray remained in the room. Lounsbury said the group that left discussed how best to deal with devolving order and conduct, and get back to matters at hand.
Much of the recent discord at school board meetings has been related to critical race theory – a hot-button issue nationwide – and whether it’s being taught directly or indirectly in Laconia Schools. School Superintendent Steven Tucker has said CRT is not part of the local curriculum.
Last Tuesday, many concerned members of the public remained orderly and reasonable, Lounsbury said, while others called school board members “Nazis” and “child abusers.” The board needed to act on time-sensitive items, including the approval of relief funds coming to Laconia schools.
Disgruntled audience members said the issue of CRT themes in local education continues to be sidestepped, and the content of diversity and inclusion training to teachers has not been fully explained. Doug Teegarden of Laconia quoted potential pieces of teacher training that were shared on social media that he said he found alarming, and continued to address the audience in an inflammatory manner during recess.
“When it's disruptive to the meeting and unnecessary things are said to the board, we have to step back. That’s why we took a break,” Lounsbury said Monday.
Jim Thompson of Laconia said the inability to hear board members speaking remains a big problem at the board meetings, and it’s likely that some people in the audience didn’t hear Lounsbury announce the rule changes, which added to the controversy over public input.
But CRT questions simmer. “Absolutely the ‘firewall’ needs to come down and straight answers need to be provided,” Thompson said in an email. “So far, what we hear is ‘no answers’ and little or no response to emails or calls.”
Lounsbury said Monday that she is open to holding a public question and answer session on CRT and diversity and inclusion education in Laconia, one that would not interrupt agenda items or board business.
Lounsbury said an inordinate amount of meeting time recently has been taken up by residents speaking out against critical race theory, which has diverted attention from important items, such as how to resume school operations post-COVID and prepare for the upcoming year.
“We are in service to our community, family and students, and we welcome their input on whatever issue it may be. We’ve had a great deal more public comment recently. We want them to come even if we don’t agree with their thoughts and differences. That’s what makes the world go round,” Lounsbury said.
The new restrictions on public comment were adopted “to maintain conduct in the boardroom,” Lounsbury said.