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Letter to the editor: Critical of BOE participation policy


I am writing in response to the article regarding public participation at Bryan County Board of Education meetings. The state of Georgia legislature put in place the requirement for school boards to have a public speaking policy that allows people to address their elected board officials about areas of concern in education. Bryan County School board is updating their speaking policy and will vote on it at the board meeting on Sept. 22.

I have little faith that any changes made to the current policy will make any difference in the current situation. It is not the policy that is necessarily at fault; rather it is the unwritten way in which public speaking is managed that is the problem. Currently, the public may only speak to the board if the topic they want to discuss is already on the agenda.

If they wish to speak on an already scheduled agenda item, they must notify the Superintendent after the agenda is posted on Tuesday afternoon at 4 p.m., and before 6 p.m. on Wednesday (24 hours before the start of the actual meeting on Thursday). Before you can be added as an allowed speaker, the petitioner must speak with the Superintendent, and then he decides if you get to speak or not. If he approves your topic, then you will be added.

If you wish to address the board about a topic not on the agenda, such as suggesting a new policy, you also must contact the Superintendent, speak with him personally, and then in his graciousness he will decide if you can speak to your elected officials.

What invariably happens is that the Superintendent explains to the person wishing to speak 1) why his/her topic is not relevant to the board and 2) why they don’t need to speak to the board, and then the person wishing to speak is not approved.

This “gatekeeping” by the Superintendent, (unwritten behavior with regards to the speaking policy) effectively eliminates people’s ability to address their elected board members. This unconstitutional behavior, whereby the Superintendent keeps residents from addressing board members, is aided and abetted by this board, to protect them from having to hear what people want to say. It certainly makes things comfortable for them and allows board meetings to be their usual 11 minutes long. That’s your tax dollars at work; thank you, board members!

While the board insists this unwritten requirement of speaking with the Superintendent is not problematic, the fact is this behavior is unconstitutional, and has been ruled such by the Federal 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, in the case of Barrett vs. Walker County School District. In 2017, the court found for the plaintiff, since “the policy of requiring a prior meeting with the Superintendent sufficiently risked chilling speech based on content” and was therefore illegal. This is exactly what is happening in Bryan County.

As a resident who repeatedly requested to be heard by the board, and who was repeatedly told I couldn’t, I resorted to politely requesting, during the time allotted for public speaking at the Jan. 2022 board meeting, to ask if I could address the board. For this I was labeled disruptive, sent a letter from an attorney threatening me with arrest, and was banned from speaking and attending all board meetings. This board and this Superintendent then maligned my good name publicly, sending a letter to all employees in the Bryan County School System regarding myself and others, and accusing us of trying to harm teachers and the school system. These were all patent falsehoods, and the whole episode was frankly mindboggling as to what the BOE wanted to achieve other than intimidation and slander.

All I have ever wanted and have been fighting for, is for some way to hold this system accountable. The only way to do that is through petitioning our school board. They have made it impossible for this to happen with the current speaking requirements. I will continue to stand up and fight for the rights of the residents of Bryan County to have their voices heard by the board of education.

I challenge each of you— try to ask to speak to the board of education at the next meeting, and see what kind of response you get.

I guarantee you, despite whatever smooth talking may occur, the outcome will be a big fat no, especially if it’s about a problem you want to see resolved.

Please attend school board meetings to see for yourself— September’s meeting is the 22nd at McAllister Elementary in Richmond Hill at 6 p.m., and October’s is on the 27th in Pembroke.

Betsy DeBry, Richmond Hill

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