Recent school board meetings in Mankato and elsewhere have veered outside the usual decorum during public forums to the detriment of civil discourse and with little consideration for mutual respect.
The Mankato school board has struck a good balance between getting taxpayer work done and allowing a wide variety of sometimes impolite comments from members of the public.
The school board was criticized by right wing media recently after a member of the public speaking to the board declined to give his address, as was the custom in the past. This was conflated by partisan right media to be somehow a censoring of the public by big government or putting the speaker at risk of harm.
After some discussion, the Mankato Area Public Schools Board decided to set clear rules for people speaking in the public forums during meetings. At Monday’s meeting, the requirement for speakers to give their address was waived. They still had to list it on the form to sign up to speak, something that is common among other bodies, including the Legislature.
The new rules call for a 3 minute limit for each speaker. The rules also allow Board Chair Jodi Sapp to end the comment period if the audience clapped or was otherwise disruptive. Speakers were also not allowed to address school board members or staff individually.
All are reasonable limits.
Speakers are also required to speak to an agenda item, and when some strayed with varying statements that veered from the agenda or were not true, they were allowed to continue.
In other words, the board chair used her discretion. That’s another reasonable approach.
We would only suggest the school board consider how a member of the public or a group would go about getting its topics listed on the school board agenda so there can be discussion.
Still, some Minnesota legislators want to introduce legislation changing school board public forum rules. The state currently has no such laws governing the forums and school boards are not required to hold such forums. The vast majority do, however.
Rep. Donald Raleigh, R-Circle Pines, says he would like to propose legislation to protect the privacy of members of the public who speak at school boards to protect them from threats and allow them to speak freely.
The safety of anyone who publicly participates in a democracy is paramount, but so too is accountability and transparency. Unfortunately, those who speak out in public forums take a risk that someone will not like what they say.
A functioning democracy must allow that the people be heard. The U.S. Constitution directs that the government derive its powers from the “consent of the governed.”
Civil society that works as a democracy has always been based on the mutual respect of the governed, however different their views might be.
Threats of violence, vitriol and mean-spirited behavior we’ve recently witnessed at local, state and national school board meetings should raise concerns that democracy itself can be threatened.
The Constitution mentions nothing about government deriving its actions from the “threats of the governed.”