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What could ease tensions at local school board meetings?

Experts say public comment is crucial
What could ease tensions at local school board meetings?
Posted at 10:12 PM, Oct 29, 2021

CLEVELAND — Continued tensions at school board meetings locally in Ohio, and nationwide, have some experts and parents wondering what can be done to ease conflict and improve meeting communication.

News 5 has reported on heated school board meetings in school districts like Berea, West Geauga, Riverside and Beachwood in recent months over topics like mask mandates, curriculum and debates over critical race theory.

The divisive school board meetings have some parents like Cathy Fallert, who has two high school teens in the Parma school district, calling for some changes in the way public comment is handled at Parma school board meetings.

With so many key issues in the forefront, Fallert is hoping her school board will expand public comment for each speaker beyond a 3-minute time limit, and eliminate the need to submit written intentions to speak to before the meeting as long as the speaker can prove they are a Parma parent.

“School board meetings locally, oh, it’s a hotbed right now," Fallert said. “Arguments start so quickly, nobody is respecting anybody’s opinion.”

Fallert continued, “If they have to be submitted before hand, I think that’s wrong, you just need to let the parent come in and say their piece. But don’t bring up old news, don’t bring up subjects that have nothing to do with the meeting."

Parma Superintendent Charles Smialek responded stressing the importance of access to public comment at school board meetings.

"They may also submit written comment or question on any subject," Smialek said. "The board president then reads this into the record at the end of the meeting. If they have submitted questions, we answer them at that time if possible. If we do not know the answer, we will respond to them within 72 hours."

"The Board would only prohibit a comment if it is "frivolous, repetitive, or harassing. Further, if the comment does not pertain to the agenda, it must wait until the end of the meeting."

What could ease tensions at local school board meetings?
What could ease tensions at local school board meetings?

Rick Lewis, executive director and CEO of the Ohio School Boards Association told News 5 the vast majority of school board meetings across the state are being held in an orderly fashion and without incident, but said if misconduct takes place it's a matter for local police departments.

The Ohio School Board Association parted ways with the National School Boards Association this week, joining four other states, after the NSBA issued a request to the White House asking that federal law enforcement step-in if meetings became threatening or violent, saying those responsible should be treated like "domestic terrorists."

“It was a stifling of community and parental engagement, labeling parents domestic terrorists," Lewis said. "The NSBA did recognize the rhetoric went too far, but the damage had already been done.”

“Those individuals who made those threats absolutely need to be held accountable, but it’s our hope we can start with local law enforcement," Lewis said. “These are challenging times for school boards in particular.”

Lewis said he invites Ohio school boards to find ways to enhance public comment, especially since he said public comment at school board meetings is currently not required under Ohio law.

“We are hopeful that school boards would explore ways to bring everybody to the table, reach those decisions and hear from everybody," Lewis said. “We’re all in this together, everybody wants the same thing and that’s a great education for their children.”

Paul Beck, Ohio State political science professor, told News 5 tensions at Ohio school board meetings have dramatically expanded the number of people running for school board seats this year, with more than 2,600 candidates, a 50% increase compared to four years ago.

Beck agrees school boards should explore ways to improve the public comment within their meetings.

“The conflict is being translated into the campaigns." Beck said. “And if it means they need to allow more time for commentary from the audience they should do that. But I would draw the line in letting anyone speak from outside a school district."

Beck continued, “What the school boards I think need to do is be very clear about what their policies are about public speaking. I think there are standards of civility that are very important to be adhered to, we’ve kind of lost track of that in our culture unfortunately.”