Rowe calls ‘gag rule’ barring Q&A at school board meetings ‘indefensible and insulting’

To the editor:

If you had a chance to watch the PTA Council forum on May 12, three of the board of education candidates defended what is in my view both an indefensible and insulting policy.

Each candidate was asked this question: “What are your thoughts on the board of education and district policy of not responding to questions during the comment period in meetings?” The board of education is the only elected body in Pelham with this policy. Citizens often pose questions that are of interest to the broader community, but yet the board chooses to answer these questions in private.

To see this question and all five candidate responses go to 1:46:10 of this video.

As I shared at the forum, these are the rules read before the public comment period at each official Pelham school board meeting: “Neither the board of education nor district administrators will be responding to comments nor questions during the public comment.”

What is stunning about this gag rule is that no other body of elected officials in Pelham operates in this fashion. Can you imagine if the Village of Pelham board did not respond in real time to public comments? There would be outrage.

But the response from three board of education candidates was: “this is the policy;” “it’s a comment period, it’s not a Q&A;” “I don’t know that responses in the meeting would be helpful;” “there are other vehicles for Q&As, like coffees;” “emails are sent in response;” “New York State school law does not require a public comment period—it only requires that meetings be open to the public;” “People speak to board members in the supermarket;” “(this criticism) is not fair.”

I found each of these defenses wholly insufficient. I love the coffees, as we should find more ways for board members to personally interact with residents. But coffees and random conversations in the produce aisle are not recorded, official meetings in which an elected body is expected to answer to its constituents who voted to grant that body the powers and privileges of public office. Moreover, following a bare minimum legal standard is insulting to Pelham residents who take the time to come to a meeting to publicly express a genuine concern, and only receive in return a stone-faced gaze from the board.

Moreover, following a bare minimum legal standard is insulting to Pelham residents who take the time to come to a meeting to publicly express a genuine concern, and only receive in return a stone-faced gaze from the board.”

As someone who ran a network of public schools for a decade and reported into a board who held me accountable, as well as someone who has sat on a school board, I understand the challenges of responding real time without complete information. Not every question can be answered in a public fashion, especially if it involves specific personnel or legal matters. If additional information is needed the board could consider following up in writing on their website for all to see. But a blanket gag rule is unacceptable. And private follow-ups do not equal public accountability. What’s more, in addition to suppressing board transparency, the gag rule also hinders board members from asking residents questions and engaging in an open and respectful dialogue so they too can become more informed.

If you agree that this gag rule is unacceptable, please vote for me on May 18. As a board member, I can not make this change unilaterally. But three candidates have clearly signaled they would advocate to leave this gag rule in place. I would try to work with my colleagues to show how there is a better way to engage with our Pelham residents who want a board to be more responsive and publicly accountable.

Ian Rowe

623  Francis Street