AYER – Call it pre-emptive, or, perhaps more aptly, pro-active. Either way, the move the School Committee discussed at its Dec. 7 meeting whether it should and how to change the district’s policy on public participation at school committee meetings.
Public, in-person attendance tends to be sparse and interactions friendly at School Committee meetings in this small regional district, where the venue alternates between the high school in Ayer and the middle school in Shirley. The recent session was no exception.
But in the wake of disruptive incidents that have occurred at in other district’s in the state and around the country this year, Superintendent Adam Renda has proposed reviewing the policy with an eye to making changes.
Parents’ strong objections to mask mandates apparently sparked most of the incidents elsewhere, but although the Ayer Shirley school district has had partial mask mandates in place since school opened in September for in-person learning, there have been no public protests about it.
Renda confirmed that.
“There wasn’t an incident at an Ayer Shirley School Committee meeting,” he said, responding to a reporter’s question in an e-mail. “But there have been several in Massachusetts this year,” he said. “This made me take a look at our policy and realize we may want to update the language,” he said.
Some of those encounters were alarming.
In Cheshire, Connecticut, for instance, things got scary at a school board meeting in August in which public educators and health officials discussed COVID-19 protocols for the upcoming school year. According to news reports, a group of angry parents showed up and started yelling during the public comment period. The meeting ended early and protesters followed the superintendent out of the building, shouting at him.
Similar incidents have disrupted school board meetings in Massachusetts communities as well, including Franklin, Swampscott, Springfield and Waltham, among others.
Cautious about leaving a door ajar in the Ayer Shirley district that could potentially invite trouble, Renda specifically addressed the part of each School Committee meeting set aside for public comment.
“Public comment is not a time for School Committee debate or response,” Renda said, adding that comments made during that time “do not reflect the committee’s views” and therefore shouldn’t be taken up then and there. However, the chair can decide differently “at his or her discretion,” he said.
It it is not a violation of the state’s Open Meeting Law to limit or even prohibit public comment, according to the open meeting law guidebook, but the Attorney General encourages public bodies to allow it. Nobody proposed scratching public comment from the School Committee agenda. But members talked about setting some rules, such as limiting the time, say to 30 minutes.
Member James Quinty proposed adding a statement to the revised policy. “Criticism of School Committee members or their positions will not be permitted,” he said.
Another member, Erica Spann, said the policy should offer members leeway to answer questions.
Renda said his proposal does that. Questions regarding COVID-19 protocols, for example. However, “intentionally disruptive comments” would be ruled out of order. “The new policy should give us the right to do that,” he said.
Chairman Michele Granger spoke of the Newton School District’s policy, as it contained language she liked, she said, including a statement that Quinty suggested could “go on the agenda” every time.
Another member, however, thought it sounded slightly “hostile.”
It might be better to establish what public comment is, exactly, and what it is not, Chris Rupprecht said.
Make clear the committee’s intent, the rights it reserves and cap the time period to 30 minutes, which seems reasonable. “We don’t want to discourage public participation,” he said.
“We can clean up the language” going forward, Renda agreed, incorporate parts of the other district’s policy statement and come up with a “hybrid” document to review next time.
In later e-mail correspondence, Granger reiterated that “nothing has happened at our…meetings” to prompt the proposed policy review. Rather, it’s about “the statement (we) would like to include in our agenda addressing the intent of public comment.”
The recent discussion was a preamble to a “first read” of the proposed new ASRSD policy, which will come up again at a future meeting.