Source: Sherman Publications

Gag rule?
Limits on school board comments draw fire, questions

by Wendi Reardon

February 22, 2012

Folks are fired up about last week's school board meeting, which ended with a lawyer addressing Clarkston School Board members on what to say and when.

"As an American this makes me mad as hell," said Michael Powell of Independence Township. "Tell me this isnt a violation of all board members Constitutional rights."

Board President Cheryl McGinnis invited attorney George Butler from Dickerson Wright, the school district's law firm, to the Feb. 13 meeting in response to comments to her from the public. People told her board members were violating bylaws and procedures, she said.

Butler said district bylaws require board members speaking in public to say they are not speaking for the board but as only a citizen.

"You have the responsibility when you are talking to make it crystal clear you are not in any way, shape or form talking as a board member," Butler addressed. "That is life as a board member. The only way you can act as a board is through resolution."

Board Treasurer Steve Hyer presented a motion for each board member to comply with policies and procedures. The motion passed, 7-0.

On Feb. 20, Powell forwarded to the Clarkston News a link to a podcast recorded and broadcast by WJR on Feb. 18, featuring Steve Hyer, school board treasurer.

The host introduces Hyer as treasurer of the Clarkston School Board twice during the course of the interview, and one of the topics discussed is the upcoming school technology bond vote, set for May 8.

At no point does Hyer issue a disclaimer, as advised by Butler. The link is internetadvisor.net/shows. Hyer did not respond to a request for comment.

At the Feb. 13 school board meeting, trustees Joan Patterson and Rosalie Lieblang questioned Butler about the bylaws.

"Anyone has the ability to ask me why I voted a certain way and I have the right to explain," Patterson said.

Lieblang added people have come to her asking about issues that haven't come before the board.

Butler said they should let the concerned citizen know board members can't talk about it until it comes before them.

He also pointed out board members should not discuss their vote or reasons why before a meeting.

"Until the vote is taken, you swore in your oath to keep an open mind on every single issue," he said. "Telling someone in the public what is going to happen or what they are going to make happen is inappropriate no reason why discussion cant happen in public view. All your talk happens right here.

Another scenario presented was board members talking to vendors, staff and administration, which is also not allowed. He added if they had questions to go through the proper protocol share with the board president and it will be passed on to the superintendent.

"If it is that important to get information follow protocol," said Butler.

He pointed out access to buildings are limited to board members unless they are volunteering or public event. Even then, he noted, keep the discussion limited to the event and don't talk about other topics.

"You must restrain yourself," he said firmly.

Dawn Schaller of Independence Township thought the issue should have been handled differently.

"It was by far, the least professional, most uncomfortable, and unacceptable presentation I have seen yet at a board meeting," said Schaller.

"The gag rule imposed by the Clarkston School administration, in my opinion violates Article I, Section 5 of the State Constitution," said Henry S. Woloson, an attorney who lives in Independence Township.

The free speech clause says Every person may freely speak, write, express and publish his views on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of such right; and no law shall be enacted to restrain or abridge the liberty of speech or of the press.

Patterson said she follows the letter of the law and the board policies.

"I think the issue is what it means to everyone of us and be on the same page," she said.

"I believe there are board members that believe they are not doing anything wrong but probably are," added Trustee Susan Boatman.

The clarification is needed to make the board more effective, said McGinnis.

"I think the discussion was important for the board to take a leadership role for the community to look upon the board that they are truly looking at the well-being of the children," said Independence Township resident George White.

Phil Custodio contributed to this report.