The following appeared as an Opinion column on NJ.com on Sunday, Sept. 19.2021. The column can be found here.
“We cannot find common ground without civility, and we cannot solve our problems without finding common ground.” This is how Sheila Suess Kennedy, a law professor at the joint Indianapolis campus of Indiana and Purdue universities, and the founder of that institution’s Center for Civic Literacy, summarized the importance of courtesy in public life.
Being polite, reasonable and respectful at a board of education meeting might seem like a trivial nicety, but civility in public life matters. Civility isn’t just 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 have read accounts from local news outlets and heard reports from our members about the public portion of board of education meetings where certain individuals engaged in threats and personal attacks on board members, disregard the board’s procedures for public comment, insult other community members, and engage in profanity. Not long ago, two board members told me that as they walked to their car after a board meeting, they were spat upon. It has been necessary in some cases to call the police to the meeting in order to keep the peace.
I have worked in public education for more than a half-century as a teacher, assistant principal, principal, superintendent, executive county superintendent and now as executive director of the New Jersey School Boards Association. During these years, there have been difficult times and hard decisions to make, and there have been intense differences of opinion within communities. This is to be expected. It’s only natural to feel passionate about issues affecting our children’s education.
But recently the level of public discourse has coarsened, and the number of bad-tempered people has greatly increased.
The volunteer members of local boards of education, who spend long hours in board and committee meetings, should not have to be subject to such rudeness and incivility.
Merriam-Webster defines an uncivil person as (1) not civilized: barbarous; (2) lacking in courtesy: ill-mannered, impolite; (3) not conducive to civic harmony and welfare. Anyone fitting this description is displaying behavior that is unacceptable, shameful, and always unproductive.
Public comment by citizens is welcomed — and mandated by law — at local board of education 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 any one member of the public can speak. Some boards ask people to line up to speak; others require a more formal sign-up sheet or online sign-up. These procedures are meant to ensure that board meetings run smoothly and permit the board to conduct the business that is on the agenda for that meeting.
A board’s public comment period is just that: a time for citizens to make their opinions heard. If a member of the public has a question, school district staffers will sometimes answer and sometimes will get back to them later with the information.
There is another reason that we should all be conducting ourselves with civility at a board of education meeting. Our children are watching us — and learning. Will they learn to treat each other with respect and listen to those who hold opposing viewpoints? Or will they learn that in a disagreement, yelling loudly and talking over others is how they should act? Educators and parents know that adults need to model the behavior we want from our children — at school, at home, and yes, in public forums.
Local oversight of our public schools is a cornerstone of our democracy, and board members are performing a valuable public service that no one should take for granted. They care about the schools in their community, make difficult decisions, donate their time and talents, and open themselves to public scrutiny and criticism. These volunteers do not deserve to have abuse heaped upon them at meetings.
New Jersey has a public education system that is the envy of most states. A local board of education — working together with an engaged and respectful community — is key to keeping our schools strong. Let’s dedicate ourselves to working together in a spirit of civility and cooperation.
These are my Reflections. I look forward to hearing yours. Contact me.