The members of the Nutmeg Board of Education hadn’t paid much attention to the curriculum over the years. But that changed this year. Nutmeg parents have started challenging the Board during Public Comment with complaints about the curriculum. Some parents have complained about comments by teachers in class that they viewed as overtly political, and other parents questioned what Nutmeg students are being taught about American history. While most comments have been civil, a few parents have crossed the line.
At the Board meeting last week, for example, one parent accused the Board of abrogating its responsibility to oversee the curriculum. “Who in pluperfect Hell do you people think you are?” asked the parent. He then pointed at each Board member individually, “You! You! You! You! and You! I am watching each of you, and I will hold you accountable!”
“Point of order, Ms. Chairman!” said veteran Board member Bob Bombast. “This guy is threatening us, and you should rule him out of order.”
“It’s not a threat,” responded the parent, “it is a promise. I will hold the Board members responsible if Nutmeg teachers indoctrinate my children in their leftist views.”
Bob was not done, but this time he addressed his fellow Board members. “I am sick and tired of getting tagged for something over which I have no control. Board members don’t have any expertise in curriculum matters; we have enough to do just to make sure the accounts balance each month. I move that Public Comment not be permitted on curriculum matters.”
Fellow Board member Mal Content piped up. “While I think that some of the comments by these parents are crazy, I think that the Board should exercise some oversight over the curriculum. Why don’t we create a committee or something?”
Bob shot back, “The last thing we need is another committee. We shouldn’t let these loud-mouthed parents push us around! If they don’t like the Nutmeg curriculum, let them send their child to some parochial academy or something!”
With that, some of the parents stood up and started chanting, “Bob must go! Bob must go,” making it impossible for the Board to continue with its agenda.
“Point of order!” Bob shouted over the din. “These people are threatening me again!” At this point, Ms. Chairperson realized that she had to do something to restore order, and she banged her gavel several times and announced loudly that she was clearing the room.
As district staff started to shoo the spectators out of the Board room, Nancy Newshound from the Nutmeg Bugle protested, claiming that she has the legal right to remain in the meeting. But the staffers were unmoved, and Nancy soon found herself in the hallway.
When the room was finally cleared and the Board members could again hear themselves think, Ms. Chairperson reconvened the meeting. “Now where were we?”
Mal Content renewed his suggestion that the Board create a committee. He explained, “I know that we Board members don’t know much about curriculum, but a Board committee would be a way for us to provide some oversight and quiet these people down.”
After listening again to Bob’s objections, the Board voted to create a curriculum committee. Was that a good idea?
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Creating a curriculum committee is not just a good idea for boards of education. It is a legal requirement. Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-220(e) was enacted in 2008, and it provides:
(e) Each local and regional board of education shall establish a school district curriculum committee. The committee shall recommend, develop, review and approve all curriculum for the local or regional school district.
Given the responsibilities of this committee, the members of that committee should be educators because such committees write curriculum for the district, an exacting job that requires professional expertise. However, it is perfectly appropriate (and these days advisable) for the superintendent to provide board members regular reports on the work of the curriculum committee and any other information board members may request.
Sadly, the problems that the Nutmeg Board of Education has experienced during public comment are not unique to Nutmeg, and some boards of education in Connecticut have had to deal with disruptions to their meetings. In the first instance, intemperate shouting and personal attacks are a violation of parliamentary procedure, and any board of education member has the right (and arguably the responsibility) to call a point of order to bring the violation to the chairperson’s attention so that he or she can rule that person out of order.
Bob went too far, however, in proposing that public comment on curriculum matters not be permitted. Boards of education are not required by law to permit public comment at their meetings. But if they do (as presumably all boards in Connecticut do), they create a forum for free speech protected by the First Amendment. Reasonable regulation as to time, place and manner of speech is allowed, permitting the prohibition against personal attacks, vulgarity, shouting and the like. Moreover, a board of education can certainly establish the scope of a forum it creates – a public hearing on the budget, for example, can be limited to comments about the budget. However, once it creates a public forum for speech, a board of education cannot otherwise discriminate and allow only certain viewpoints to be expressed.
In extreme cases, boards of education may have to deal with disruptive actions that make it impossible to conduct their business. Since its inception, the Freedom of Information Act has included a provision permitting public agencies to deal with disruptions at their meetings. Specifically, the FOIA permits public agencies to clear the room in extreme cases:
In the event that any meeting of a public agency is interrupted by any person or group of persons so as to render the orderly conduct of such meeting unfeasible and order cannot be restored by the removal of individuals who are wilfully interrupting the meetings, the members of the agency conducting the meeting may order the meeting room cleared and continue in session. If such person or group of persons is attending such meeting by means of electronic equipment, as defined in section 1- 200, the members of the public agency may terminate such person’s or group of persons’ attendance by electronic equipment until such time as such person or group of persons conforms to order or, if need be, until such meeting is closed. Only matters appearing on the agenda may be considered in such a session. Duly accredited representatives of the press or other news media, except those participating in the disturbance, shall be allowed to attend any session held pursuant to this section. Nothing in this section shall prohibit such public agency from establishing a procedure for readmitting an individual or individuals not responsible for willfully disturbing the meeting.
Conn. Gen. Stat. § 1-232. Interestingly, Section 153 of the Budget Implementer Bill (June 2021 Special Session, Public Act No. 21-2) added the language above that permits a public agency to terminate the rights of persons attending a meeting by electronic means.
This extreme power should be exercised sparingly, only in response to a serious disruption that makes it impossible to restore order and proceed in public session. Faced with disruptive conduct, the chairperson should call a recess and to warn the public when reconvening that such conduct will not be permitted and that continued disruption will result in clearing the room. Then the chairperson should do so only if it later becomes necessary.
Finally, Nancy Newshound had a good point. The statute expressly provides that “Duly accredited representatives of the press or other news media, except those participating in the disturbance, shall be allowed to attend any session held pursuant to this section.” Since Nancy Newshound was not causing trouble, she should not have been excluded from the meeting.