Washougal School Board wrong to limit public’s speaking time

The Washougal School Board is mulling over a proposed policy that could severely limit public comment.

The issue first reared its head at a June 26 school board meeting, when two teachers and one parent went to the podium and encouraged the school board to rethink its proposed Policy 1430, which would allow the board to limit its public comment period during regular meetings to just 15 minutes.

Policy 1400, the board’s current policy, states that individuals must limit their own comments to three minutes or less, but has no language regarding a total amount of time for all commenters to speak. If each person commenting took their entire three minutes, the board’s proposed policy would limit the number of those commenting to just five per meeting.

Brett Cox, an eighth grade science teacher at Jemtegaard Middle School, told the board the district needs to open up communication with its constituents and not shut them down.

Angela Hancock, a Washougal parent, also asked the board to reconsider the 15-minute cap on public comments. Morale is low in the Washougal School District, she said, and this policy would only makes things worse. She also argued the language of the proposed policy could cause a rise of discrimination issues.

The proposed policy states that the board president may review comment topics and determine a speaking order that allows for each topic, and also gives the board president the authority to limit the total amount of time dedicated to public comment at any meeting.

Washougal board president Cory Chase said the policy leaves too much discretion up to the board president, and he would not want himself, or future board presidents, to have to make certain decisions where discrimination has a possibility of occurring.

School board members are elected officials and are responsible for listening to the voices of those they’re elected to serve.

The school board members agreed that a 15-minute public comment cap is too short, saying a 30-minute limit was reasonable.

While 30 minutes could potentially allow up to 10 people to speak at a meeting, the designated time cap does not send a message of fairness and respect to the Washougal community.

After the board members shared their thoughts about the proposed policy, one frustrated Washougal teacher stood up and walked out of the meeting, saying “I’m done,” to a fellow teacher on his way out.

The school board is supposed to be the link between the school district and the communities it serves. Setting limits on how many people can speak directly to the board — which is, effectively, what the overall time limit does — is the opposite of providing such a link.

The board meetings occur every other week and when people come to speak, it’s usually a last-resort option that many find nerve-racking. This is why commenters often come to public meetings in groups, with multiple people sharing their own individual experiences.

If the number of speakers threatens to break the 30-minute time cap, picking and choosing who gets to speak based on the topic is unfair. Each person has their own experience to share and can add a new perspective to the topic at hand.

The board will be doing itself and the community a disservice by limiting the overall comment-period time.

Instead, the board should focus on improving its relationships — with teachers, parents and the community.

There are a few small efforts that show the board wants to move in this more positive direction. During the June 26 meeting, for example, after a sign-in sheet mix up that would have prevented teacher Ryan Isaacson from speaking to the board, School Board President Chase took Isaacson at his word, saying he believed the teacher had intended to sign the correct sheet, and allowed Isaacson to speak to the board.

The board needs to reach out in similar small, but gracious, ways like Chase did with Isaacson, instead of implementing rules that would prohibit community members from being able to speak their minds and build a working relationship with the school board and with district leaders.