Robert Flood is a man who’s passionate about the role that education, public schools and parents hold in shaping a child’s future. He’s also a man who believes in second chances, in redemption if you will, for folks who’ve made a mistake or two in the past but who’ve paid their debts to society.
Put the two together and that’s why, for more than two years, he’s been speaking out about Lynchburg City Schools’ in-school volunteer policy, which bans people who have felony convictions from serving as volunteers. It’s an across-the-board ban, with no exceptions. It’s a ban, Flood argues, that disproportionately affects African American parents, particularly fathers. They can’t chaperone field trips, can’t help coach intramural athletics, can’t mentor kids with behavior issues — all because of a mistake they themselves made in the past.
For more meetings of the Lynchburg City School Board than you can count, Flood has made a point of speaking out on the issue during the board’s 30 minutes set aside on its agenda for public comments. And now, the board is moving to shut him up.
Earlier this month, the board’s governance policy work group suggested “clarifying” how often a private individual can address the board on a particular topic. Currently, there is no policy that limits the number of times a person can speak on the same topic, but the work group wants to change that, and it’s a pretty dramatic change.
Under the proposal, once a person or organization has spoken about the same issue twice, they must wait three months before speaking about it again, unless a majority of the board members present vote to allow it. When you factor in that, in November 2017, the board cut in half its number of monthly meetings, you realize it’s a pretty draconian move. (What had been a second official meeting is now a board workshop, but the public isn’t allowed to speak during workshops.)
It’s a move board members are considering in the name of efficiency, prioritizing and time management. But we believe there are more important issues at play here and advise the board to tread carefully before adopting this policy.
School Board member Atul Gupta has expressed some deep reservations about the proposal. “This is a taxpayer-funded operation. They have the right to speak whenever they want on whatever topic they want,” he said at the board’s sole meeting this month. “... To me, it’s pretty draconian.”
Gupta went on to stress that the board’s business is the public’s business. “If somebody’s coming week after week, does it give us pause as to why? ... What will escalate it to a point where we say, ‘Yes, it is a priority’?”
Limiting the right of an individual or group to address the School Board, we believe, sends the wrong message to the public. It that implies what they want to talk about is just not that important, that there’s no new argument that can be made on behalf of their position, that hearing from the public — all of the public — can be a pain.
Flood, who arguably is the target of this proposal, had hoped the board would “open up and see the light a little better, but it seems like they want to stonewall and not answer the questions we ask.”
The public’s First Amendment right to “petition the Government for a redress of grievance” is a fundamental right. We maintain hope that board members will see the wrongheadedness of this proposal and scrap it.