The Iowa City Community School District, facing an upcoming bond election, school closures, and other controversial topics, proposes to cut opportunities for the public to comment at its board meetings. This would help district leaders ensure that more positive comments are heard than critical voices which in turn will create more “yes” voters on its future bond issue and give voters fewer reasons to vote “no.” At its June 23 meeting, the board may adopt a policy disallowing public speakers from speaking at the time of an agenda item and limiting the time to speak before votes are taken to one hour. This is a major change from the board’s current policy, which allows not only public comment early in the meeting but also on specific agenda items.
Past comments from some board members about the tone and manner of speakers suggest the real reason for the board cutting opportunities for the public to speak is to squelch criticism, not make meetings more efficient. If the board’s new public comment policy is adopted,
1) the speaker time changes from three to four minutes resulting in fewer speakers being able to speak thanks to the newly proposed hour time limit for public comment prior to any board votes,
2) the board can load the speaker list with ringers and put negative speakers at the end of the speaker pile resulting in speakers who are critical of the board not being permitted to speak before votes are taken (can anyone say “censorship”?),
3) the public could no longer speak at the time of the specific agenda item resulting in board members perhaps being a) unable to recall the nature of a public speaker’s comments and b) unable to put comments in context with the agenda item,
4) television viewers who join the school board mid-meeting would no longer hear public comments about a particular agenda item, and
5) community members would likely not be allowed to speak more than once even if there were multiple agenda items of interest. This would be a problem, for example, if the board put both budget cuts and the closing of a neighborhood school on the agenda for the same meeting.
Under the board’s proposed policy, if all speakers use their board allotted four minutes, only fifteen people can speak rather than twenty (if the proposed policy had kept the current three speaker minute limit). In reality, the number of speakers would be even less because some of the newly proposed hour time limit on public speakers would be eaten away by board members’ speaking and speakers transitioning to and from the podium. This is in stark contrast to the current policy, which has no hour limit on comments and where almost forty community members were able to speak in the same evening, one right after the other, about the budget cuts–a powerful moment in time.
Also, with multiple speakers, for example, the board president could “kindly” let enthusiastic students go first to be followed by all of the folks who help the district market the one hundred million dollar plus bond. Anti-bond folks could be moved to the bottom of the speaking pile and if their comments are heard at all, they may not be heard until after the board votes. A policy that permits a board president to bury some speakers is grossly unfair and demonstrates a lack of confidence in the strength of the district’s positions. The current system, under which speakers are permitted to speak at the time of the agenda item and total speaker time is not capped at one hour so no viewpoints can garner most favored status, is far better.
Why would district leadership want to curtail public input on specific agenda items? One would think that if the board was interested in serving the public that public input, especially from all of those most affected, would be welcome. True motives are perhaps best shown by the board’s past attempts to regulate the nature and tone of public comment and the current chilling reminder by the board president to the audience that public speakers can be sued if the subject matter of their comments objects to what the speakers have to say. Issues involving our children such as budget cuts, closing a school, and dollar amount of a bond issue deserve a rigorous vetting. Board members should vote this misguided proposed policy down so that all public comments may be heard.