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January 12. 2014 8:18PM

Manchester school board approves public comment policy

MANCHESTER — People in the Queen City might want to watch what they say next time they decide to speak publicly at a school board meeting.

The Board of School Committee adopted rules at its inaugural session Tuesday that bar “personal complaints of school personnel or complaints against any person connected with the district,” during the public comment period at the beginning of meetings.

The provision was part of a sweeping overhaul of house rules approved by the school board, with the goal of making the body function more efficiently and harmoniously.

The board had conducted its meetings based on a collection of rules that were often scarcely enforced or understood.

While the rule concerning public comments generated debate at Tuesday’s organizational session, it turns out it was already on the books. It has been part of the district’s policy manual since 2002.

The rule states: “Speakers may offer comments on school operations and programs that concern them. In public session, however, the Board shall not hear personal complaints of school personnel or complaints against any person connected with the District. Other channels are provided for Board consideration and disposition of legitimate complaints involving individuals, which should be referred to the Superintendent.”

Still, the policy was news to the school board on Tuesday as it debated its inclusion in the new comprehensive rule book.

“If we’re going to gag the public then we should gag our press people there who have a good time beating on some of us,” said school board member Art Beaudry, Ward 9, who was critical of many of the proposed rule changes. “To me, if a member of the public wants to come and speak, as long as they’re respectful and not using vulgarities, that should be their right.”

Board member John Avard, Ward 10, who was largely supportive of the other rule changes, said the restriction on personal complaints against “any person connected with the district” was too broad.

“The way I read this, it seems some people would not be allowed to come and make a complaint about a principal,” he said. “I think this isn’t about taking our names out of the paper.”

The rules were drafted by at-large school board member Dave Wihby, the newly elected vice chairman of the board, and he noted that he was simply including the prior policy on public comments.

Asked during the debate Tuesday if the language concerning “any person connected to the district” included the school board, of which the mayor is a member, Wihby replied, “It includes everybody.”

The board ended up voting 11-3 to keep the policy.

Mayor Ted Gatsas, who serves as the chairman of the school board and is responsible for conducting the meetings, also had misgivings about the rule, and he abstained on the vote to remove it.

“I think if there are personal remarks against a board member I tend to put a stop to those,” Gatsas said on Thursday. But, he added, the public “absolutely can comment on me.”

The reference for the board’s original 2002 policy on public comments is the New Hampshire School Board Association, which provides model policies for numerous school boards around the state.

The 2011 NHSBA policy guidebook, however, is more specific about the categories of people that should be exempt from public criticism. “Complaints regarding individual employees, personnel or students will be directed to the Superintendent,” the document states, adding, “Obscene, libelous, defamatory or violent statements will be considered out of order and will not be tolerated.”

The Manchester school board’s adoption of the rules came the same week that the Hooksett School Board narrowly rejected a policy that would have restricted personal attacks from members of the public aimed at school board members during meetings. The town’s board has been mired in acrimony, largely over whether to continue sending its students to the Manchester district.
tsiefer@unionleader.com


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