School board should respect free speech rights of constituents

ON Wednesday, August 8 our Savannah-Chatham County Public School Board considered adding the following language to an already well-functioning policy regarding public participation in Board meetings:

“The Board reserves the right to limit the number of individuals commenting on an issue.”

Policy “BCBI” allows for any member of the public to have up to 5 minutes to speak on any item on the agenda.  Items in the SCCPSS School Board agenda are policies that affect our children.

This past school year the public was most vocal around three particular issues - schedule changes which would have taken away part of the December holidays, a policy that regulated parents who volunteer in the schools that their children attend, and most recently, a proposed policy that would allow schools to punish students by eliminating recess or replace recess with additional academic instruction for things like standardized test preparation.  

Generally on these hot-button issues ten to twelve members of the public have shown up to speak, adding no more than an average additional hour to the monthly public meeting.

Our School Board Members asked for their jobs, they raised money to campaign for their jobs, they went door-to-door and asked for you to trust them with your vote.

And now they want to vote to eliminate public comments and censor their constituents at publicly held School Board meetings. Before they vote on policies that affect our community.

Two School Board members remain staunchly opposed to this new change in the policy, Michael Johnson and Jolene Byrne.

Shawn Kachmar is also opposed, but offered some type of a hybrid compromise of allowing 1.5 hours of public comment per monthly meeting.  

The other elected officials stood firmly behind the policy change which would limit the free speech of their constituents; Julie Wade, Dionne Hoskins-Brown, Connie Hall, Irene Hines, Larry Lower, Ruby Jones.  (Both Larry Lower and Ruby Jones lost their bids for election on May 22 but remain on the Board until January).

Some of the exaggerated reasons that School Board members who support this censorship policy threw around for their support of this change were that it would prevent them from doing “Board business”; that it could “filibuster” the School Board; and that they might have to be there “until midnight” if they allowed their constituents to speak on Board policies that affect our children before they vote.  

The business of the Board is to listen to the people who elected them: the tax-paying citizens of Chatham County.  

In order for the elected members of the School Board to be held in session “until midnight,” at least 132 members of the public would have to be lined up to speak because each constituent is only allowed a maximum of 5 minutes to speak.  

As far as a “filibuster,” the longest individual filibuster on record was 24 hours and 18 minutes in the U.S. Senate - it would take over 291 individual constituents standing up and each speaking for their maximum 5 minutes to beat this record.  

The issue comes down to a systemic disconnect of elected officials not wanting to listen to their constituents.  

We vote them into these offices that they seek, in exchange they are supposed to listen to our concerns.

As parents and constituents, if we schedule time to attend public School Board meetings, which take place in the middle of the work day and during carpool line on the first Wednesday of every month at 1 p.m., we should be allowed to speak on the policies that affect our community and our families.  

It would be wise the our elected officials listen more to their constituents, not less.  I encourage School Board Members Julie Wade, Dionne Hoskins-Brown, Connie Hall, Irene Hines, Larry Lower, and Ruby Jones to reconsider their support of this policy change that would censor and limit the speech of their constituents.  

I encourage all Chatham County citizens to pay attention to local government.  The next School Board Meeting is Wednesday, September 5 at 1 p.m.. At that time the School Board will be taking up this censorship policy along with the policy that could allow schools to eliminate recess for your child.  

Take the time to come to the Board meeting and use your allocated 5 minutes to speak on the record to YOUR elected officials. You elected these individuals, you are their boss, and they need to hear from you now.

The next School Board election will be held in May 2020.  Julie Wade, who currently holds the 1st District seat has already publicly stated that she will not run for re-election.  

Dionne Hoskins-Brown (2nd District) and Connie Hall (3rd District) who both currently support this policy that censors their constituents will have their seats up for election.  

Also, Michael Johnson of District 7 will be up for re-election. Johnson vehemently opposes this policy and states, “I listen to all citizens of Chatham because my votes effect all of Chatham. I oppose any new language that would inhibit the Board from hearing even one citizen. We need to remember we work for the public good therefore the public is our boss.”

Be careful who you trust your sacred vote to.  Take elections seriously and do your research. Vote in every election.  The death of democracy starts when we stop caring about elections and when elected officials censor their constituents.  



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