By Lawrence S. Feinsod
“We cannot find common ground without civility, and we cannot solve our problems without finding common ground. This is how Sheila Suess Kennedy, professor of law at the Indianapolis joint campus of Indiana and Purdue universities and founder of the institution’s Center for Civic Literacy, summed up the importance of civility in public life.
Being polite, reasonable, and respectful at an education board meeting may seem like an insignificant subtlety, but civility in public life is important. Civility is not only an optional aspect of our system of government, it is an essential component of democracy. The word civility comes from the Latin word “civis”, which means “citizen”.
Recently we read local media accounts and heard reports from our members on the public portion of education council meetings where some individuals involved in threats and personal attacks on council members, ignoring council procedures for public comment, insulting other community members and engaging in profanity. Not too long ago, two board members told me that when they walked to their car after a board meeting, they were spat on. It was necessary in some cases to call the police to the meeting in order to keep the peace.
I have worked in public education for over half a century as a teacher, deputy principal, principal, superintendent, county executive superintendent and now as executive director of the New Jersey School Boards Association. During these years, there have been difficult times and difficult decisions to be made, and there have been intense differences of opinion within the communities. This is to be expected. It is only natural to feel passionate about the issues that affect the education of our children.
But recently the level of public discourse has grown and the number of people in a bad mood has increased dramatically.
Volunteer members of local school boards, who spend long hours in board and committee meetings, should not be subjected to such rudeness and rudeness.
Merriam-Webster defines an uncivil person as (1) uncivilized: barbarian; (2) lack of courtesy: rude, rude; (3) not conducive to civic harmony and well-being. Anyone who fits this description displays unacceptable, shameful, and consistently unproductive behavior.
Public comment from citizens is welcome – and mandated by law – at local education board meetings in New Jersey. Almost all boards have policies and procedures governing public comment periods. These policies typically place an overall time limit on the public comment period, as well as a limit on how long a member of the public can speak. Some councils ask people to line up to speak; others require a more formal registration form or online registration. These procedures are intended to ensure the smooth running of Board meetings and to enable the Board to conduct business on the agenda for this meeting.
A council’s public comment period is just that: a time for citizens to have their views heard. If a member of the public has a question, school district staff will sometimes respond and sometimes come back to them later with the information.
There is another reason why we should all behave civilly at an education board meeting. Our children watch us and learn. Will they learn to treat each other with respect and listen to those with opposing views? Or will they learn that in a disagreement, yelling out loud and talking to others is the way they should act? Educators and parents know that adults must shape the behavior we expect from our children – at school, at home and, yes, in public forums.
Local oversight of our public schools is the cornerstone of our democracy, and board members perform a valuable public service that no one should take for granted. They care about the schools in their community, make tough decisions, volunteer their time and talents, and are open to public scrutiny and criticism. These volunteers do not deserve to be abused at meetings.
New Jersey has a public education system that is the envy of most states. A local school board, which works with an engaged and respectful community, is essential to keep our schools strong. Let us dedicate ourselves to working together in a spirit of civility and cooperation.
Dr. Lawrence S. Feinsod is the Executive Director of the New Jersey School Boards Association.
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