Citizens forced to sue to enforce right to speak 

The Monroe City Schools is the only local government that prides itself on short meetings and limited public input. It has erected barriers to sidestep the open meetings laws and control public input.

That’s the meat of a court trial this week in 4th District Court. The suit being argued was filed by a group of Black homeowners who challenged the board’s practice of sidestepping the open meetings law.

Louisiana law is extremely detailed when it comes to school boards. Unlike all other government bodies, the legislature wanted to be sure that the public is fully informed on school district issues. It requires that school boards allow public comment on “every” school board agenda item, and if there is a vote, the public comment must come before the vote is taken.

All other agencies provide public comment at the end of their agendas.

To limit public input, the Monroe City School Board adopted a policy that requires members of the public to sign up to speak BEFORE the meeting begins. If a person arrives at the meeting on time or even a minute late, they are not allowed to talk about an issue.

The board does acknowledge any citizen who wants to speak for three minutes who arrived before the meeting began, but no one else.

There is a no public comment period at the Monroe School Board. The superintendent says that the public is represented by their individual school board member who should speak for them. However, the board’s policy does not allow individual school board members to place items on the agenda unless the board president and the superintendent both agree on the subject matter.

A citizen that wants to comment on a matter that is not on the agenda must write a letter five business days before the next meeting spelling out what they want to say. If both the president and the superintendent agree on the contents, then the citizen is placed on the agenda to address their concern.

The board’s openness to public input is questionable when compared to other local governments.

The Monroe City Council, for example, asks for public input on all agenda items, even though it’s not required. At the end of its meetings, any citizen is free to share their views for three minutes. Often council members learn of unknown problems. Sometimes the comments are frivolous and even amusing, but council members sit patiently, listen, and take notes. They are not required to answer questions or make comments.

Citizens don’t have to write a letter five days in advance and wait for approval before they can speak.

President Bill Willson, often brags about the shortness of school board meetings. In fact, under his leadership, the number of school board meetings held by the board has been cut in half. The board now meets only once a month instead of twice a month as in the past.

Its agenda contains a unique feature called a “Consent Agenda,” which is a package of proposals, plans, policies, etc. that are lumped together in one item. A member quickly moves to approve the “Consent Agenda,” and all of the items are approved instantly without discussion.” It’s quick, and it sidesteps discussion and explanation to the public.

The board is spending thousands of dollars fighting a suit filed by John Ethel Minniefield and Jesse Smith on behalf of the West Parkview Homeowners Association. All they want is for the board to change its policy and obey the open meetings law.

During a break in Monday’s proceedings, the attorney for the homeowners offered to settle the suit, if the board would simply change its policy and follow the state law. Superintendent Vidrine refused the offer.

Why should citizens have to file suit to force the board to follow state law?

Why is the city school board the only government body in our area that requires the public to take action before a meeting begins? What is the purpose of requiring parents to write letters five days in advance for approval?

One former board members say they copied the procedure of the state BESE Board. However, the state law about local school board’s does not apply to the BESE Board.

A parent who has issues with a school or even the superintendent, should not require the superintendent’s approval to bring the matter before the board.

A citizen that wants to question an action or procedure authorized by the board president should not need the board president’s approval to speak on the subject.

Regardless of the outcome of this week’s trial, the board should take action to revise its policy to comply with the law by:

–Announcing at the beginning of the meeting that persons who want to speak can sign up while the meeting is in progress but before their item of concern is addressed.

–Allowing a public comment period at the end of the agenda, without the need to write a letter five days in advance.

No parent should have to sue the board for the right to bring a concern that is not on the official agenda to the board’s attention.

It’s time for a change.