July 21, 2024

Keeping Media and Government Accountable.

School Board Member Free Speech and Transparency Act has hearing

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HB 2382, the School District Board of Education Member Free Speech and Transparency Act, was introduced at a hearing before the House Education Budget Committee.

The bill amends current state law by “.. requiring school districts to publicly list current members and provide the email addresses for such members; requiring certain records made, maintained or kept on a member’s private electronic device to be subject to disclosure under the open records act; authorizing members to add items to meeting agendas, question conferees and request information from the school district.”

School board members routinely citing issues of a lack of communication and transparency with their leaders and administrators were involved in the crafting of the legislation.

One member in support was Amy Cawvey of Lansing, who testified at the hearing:

“I fully support an individual board member being allowed to add items to the meeting agenda. We cannot fully represent our constituents and be a voice for them without this. Currently the board president and superintendent set the agenda, but board president is a parliamentary position to preside over meetings and the superintendent is not an elected official. By denying an individual board member the right to have items added to agenda is denying their ability to fully represent their constituents.

“I also support mandating districts to allow the public to speak.  We have done this successfully in Lansing with our Parents Bill of Rights. The public should always maintain this right. However, I also support board members being able to engage with patrons during or after the public comment time.”

It’s on that final point that Cawvey offered a tweak in the legislation:

“I would suggest amending this bill regarding communication from private citizens, for example parents, to board members. This is often done in confidence, and they do not consent to their correspondence being made public. Currently under KORA (Kansas Open Records Act) this exemption is provided. Parents would not feel comfortable contacting their elected board members without it.”

Also offering support was Dave Trabert, CEO of the Kansas Policy Institute, parent company of The Sentinel. He says the bill restores transparency and accountability in those districts where they are often lacking:

 “Each provision of it is based on information we’ve gotten from a lot of school board members across the state. There are multiple examples of these  issues as barriers to improving public education. These are conscious efforts to try to silence some school board members;  to say, ‘no, you may not raise an issue because you aren’t the president,  you aren’t the superintendent.’ School board members supervise school districts. On what basis does it make sense to have the staff be able to tell their boss: ‘no, you may not have information?’

Opposing the measure was USD 497 Board President Shannon Kimball, who saw “onerous requirements” that board members could be subjected to if this bill became law:

“As a school board an agenda is created and then approved at the beginning of each meeting by a majority vote. This bill, astonishingly, would allow a single member of the board to insist on putting something on the agenda that goes against the will of the majority. Such a proposal is anti-democratic and in conflict with state law and generally accepted principles of good board and legislative governance.

“Second, regarding public comment at board meetings, a single board member would be granted the unlimited ability to obstruct the continuation of a public meeting for an unlimited amount of time. This bill does not promote transparency; rather its requirements that a single board member can have unlimited time to interact with someone at the board meeting stifles open and transparent consideration of the school board business.

“Third, regarding changes to open records requirements, I highlight for you that this change is specifically targeted only at school board members and specifically excludes each of you and all the other members of every elected and appointed governing body in the state of Kansas. Requiring school board members to provide their personal work product in response to open records requests is overly intrusive. It would be unprecedented for elected officials in Kansas, and it serves no other legitimate purpose of transparency or good governance.”

Leah Fliter of the Kansas Association of School Boards joined in opposition, adding a cyber threat caution:

“It violates local school boards constitutional rights to oversee their districts, could subject districts to cyber-attacks and puts boards at risk of violating state and federal privacy laws.”

Fliter offered no substantiation of her claims.

Ward Cassidy is Executive Director of the new Kansas School Board Resource Center, which provides unbiased information, free-of-charge to board members, on such issues as policies, spending, and student achievement:

“The School Board Member Free Speech and Transparency Act would be a very positive opportunity for school board members to have a stronger role in their districts educational system.  They are elected officials and having their email address available to their constituents is very important.  It is hard to believe that so many districts won’t share board member emails.”

If approved by the committee, HB 2382 will go to the House floor for consideration.

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