Windsor Locks school board to consider banning critical comments at its meetings | Windsor Locks | #Education

WINDSOR LOCKS — The Board of Education will vote on a policy and bylaw change at its Thursday meeting that would bar public comments criticizing any member of the school community, a move that teachers union officials say is meant to censor educators’ and residents’ voices.

The school board’s policy subcommittee at its Jan. 8 meeting suggested the changes that board members will consider Thursday.

A section of the bylaws that addresses public statements, adopted on June 14, 2012, now states: “The Windsor Locks Board of Education recognizes that communication is a continuous two-way process. The board believes that it is important to keep the public informed about educational programs and, in turn, that the community should have the opportunity to provide input.”

The board will consider adding the following statement:

“The Board or Committee will not permit in public session any expression of personal complaint about school personnel nor against any person connected with the school system, including students whether specifically identified by name or not. Persons with personal complaints regarding personnel should speak with the Superintendent of Schools as a means of bringing concerns for consideration and disposition. Speakers will not be permitted to participate in gossip, make defamatory comments, or use abusive or vulgar language. Speakers will be advised that comments must be limited to items, which directly relate to the school district.”

On Thursday’s agenda, under the item when the board would allow comments from the public, there’s a section advising speakers that any discussion of specific employees will not be allowed at meetings and should be addressed to the employee’s immediate supervisor or the superintendent.

Board Chairman Dennis Gragnolati said this week the intention of the additional language is to tell teachers and residents that they can’t make comments that are derogatory about any members of the school community.

“If someone makes negative comments about an administrator or teacher, they can’t defend themselves,” he said, adding that the board would not allow the school system’s employee to publicly address such comments. “Our policy is that the board carries on the business of the school district but does not see the merit in negative comments.”

Union officials, however, see the proposed revised policy differently.

“The Windsor Locks Board of Education is moving swiftly to rewrite board policy in a way that muzzles teachers and community members’ ability to speak out at public board meetings, undermining the public trust,” wrote Windsor Locks Teachers Association President Brian Deming and Nancy Andrews of the Connecticut Education Association in a joint statement sent to local media this week.

“Board of Education meetings are open to the public and meant to invite discussion of public school issues, but the Board of Education is now rushing forward to rewrite board policy and bylaws in a way that shuts down those conversations.”

During the public comment portion of a board meeting on Nov. 19, Deming raised objections to Superintendent Shawn Parkhurst’s behavior during a Nov. 2 professional development session and asked for a third-party investigation into the matter.

The board unanimously voted Nov. 30 against pursuing the investigation, saying members found no evidence of wrongdoing by Parkhurst after reviewing witness statements and a video taken during the professional development.

“Instead of having our complaint investigated, we were rebuked for raising concerns, and the board is going to vote on Thursday to adopt policies to silence teachers and others who bring concerns before the board,” Deming said.

He also asked why the board would add language to its policy and bylaw pertaining to public comments that’s “verbatim from what backfired” in 2000. Residents that year filed a notice of intent to sue (Lapointe v. Windsor Locks Board of Education) for “the board’s attempt to stifle public concerns and severely limit meaningful participation in meetings,” Deming said.

“There was intense public outcry at that time,” he said. “After multiple attempts to rewrite the rules so that people would be prevented from bringing specific concerns to their meetings, the board finally removed that language.”

The union is asking the board to vote down the proposed policy changes and instead increase communication with the school community and pursue amicable resolution to concerns brought before members, Deming said his the statement.

“We’re willing to listen but in a different format,” said Gragnolati, reiterating that anyone with concerns about a teacher, student, or school employee can speak with the superintendent, a supervisor, or the board outside of a public meeting.

“What we want is the ability to talk to the board about concerns with the superintendent,” Deming said. “The proposed change doesn’t do that.”

For more coverage of Somers and Ellington, follow Susan Danseyar on Twitter: @susandanseyar, Facebook: Susan Danseyar, reporter.

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