A-R School committee adopts new public comment policy

  • Athol Royalston Regional School District attorney Fred Dupere, second from left, addressed members of the school committee recently. left to right — Business Manager Lynn Bassette, Dupere, Superintenent Darcy Fernandes, School Committee Chair Lee Chauvette, Administrative Assistant Sheryl Femino, and committee members Mitch Grosky, Deb Kuzmeskas, and Bill Chiasson. —Greg Vine

For the Athol Daily News
Published: 4/19/2019 10:00:27 PM
Modified: 4/19/2019 10:00:14 PM

ATHOL — At its most recent meeting, the Athol Royalston Regional School Committee approved a new policy covering the public comment period included on the agenda for the panel’s regular meetings. Committee attorney Fred Dupere was asked to review the policy after a parent raised concerns about the district’s World Cultures class at a meeting in February, even though the class was not on the agenda for discussion.

A policy adopted in 1998 required comments to be limited to agenda items only.

The committee wanted to ensure its policy meets Constitutional muster in the wake of a Middlesex Superior Court ruling last June that the Natick School Committee’s public comment policy violated the right to free speech.

Dupere told the committee he recommended two main changes in the 1998 policy.

The re-written paragraph 4 of the policy allows the committee chair to terminate an “individual’s privilege of address” if the person uses vulgar or threatening language. The new wording is more detailed in defining the type of language that can lead to the chair silencing a speaker. The older version of the paragraph was much broader, allowing a speaker to be dismissed for “improper conduct or remarks.”

The old language, said Dupere, “was based on the subjective belief of the school committee as to whether the language was appropriate or not. This (new) language does not have that control, and instead controls only threats and vulgar comments, but not speech you may not agree with. You can’t terminate it if you don’t like what the person is saying. But you can terminate it if it’s threatening or vulgar.”

A change in paragraph 6 of the policy would tighten up wording regarding complaints individuals may have with school personnel.

The new wording states: “Speakers may offer comments and/or criticisms of the school operations and programs that are items on the agenda…Administrative channels are the proper forum for comments and criticisms for personnel who are not directly under the jurisdiction of the School Committee.”

Eliminated is wording that stated the committee would not hear personal complaints regarding school personnel or any “member of the school community.” Added is the statement reiterating the requirement that complaints are limited to items on the agenda.

“So, the proposed changes,” said Dupere, “emphasize that for agenda items, and also for public comment, they must pertain to areas that are under the jurisdiction of the School Committee, and not under the jurisdiction of the administration under the Ed Reform Act of 1993. So, if it’s a personnel issue, that does not come before the School Committee, it goes before administration.”

Dupere noted that normal operations of the Committee would be to send the proposed changes to a policy subcommittee for review and, if approved, brought back to the full committee to vote on whether to accept the new wording as a first reading.

“The only problem with that approach,” said Dupere, “is that it takes time, and some of the issues I addressed in the revision are, in fact, based upon the court decision. It takes out the areas that are of concern, as far as First Amendment rights. It also makes clear subject matters that are appropriate at School Committee meetings are those that are under the jurisdiction of the School Committee.”

Because the policy addresses First Amendment issues, Dupere suggested immediate adoption of it, rather than sending it through the usual process. The committee took the attorney’s advice and unanimously approved the policy.

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