Some Thin-Skinned DISD Trustees Want Public to Stop Picking on Them During Board Meetings

Leslie's up shortly with a recap of yesterday discussion about expanding the Dallas Independent School District's calendar, which got further with the trustees than some of the Friends of Unfair Park predicted earlier. I sat through the rest of the meeting to see how the board would handle that $40-million technology contract with Prime, which was eventually deferred to a closed-door discussion at a later date -- no surprise there, given the ongoing litigation. Shortly after that, or about six hours into a close-to-seven-hour meeting, it got real interesting as the trustees turned to the topic of public speakers at board meetings -- and how to keep 'em quiet.

This came up about two years ago, when there was some discussion about limiting comments. But as it turns out, the board doesn't like to be picked on. And at least one member -- board president Lew Blackburn -- would like to find a way to limit or eliminate public speakers who use their three minutes to say not-nice things about the district's higher-ups.

"Occasionally we have people come speak to the board, and it's more of a three-minute bullying, if you will," Blackburn said by way of introduction. "I don't mind listening to folks tell us about what we should do, or if they don't like the votes we've done or are about to make, but to attack individual trustees or employees personally I think is not a good thing, and I think we need to find way to limit that if not altogether eliminate it. So I've asked our legal staff to see if there's something we can do in our policy beyond me just saying, 'OK, turn off the mic, and we're going to go on.'"

The board was told by its chief legal counsel, Jack Elrod: Well, you can get rid of public participation altogether. He reminded them, "the Attorney General has said that's not required." But the board was also told they're public figures, and this comes with the territory -- even if "it's rude or hard to take." (Just ask the Dallas City Council, which gets its ass handed to it every Wednesday. Only, not once in recent memory has the council -- which, unlike the DISD board, is paid -- considered limiting public comment. Which isn't to say that speakers haven't occasionally been asked to leave or escorted out of chambers.)

Bernadette Nutall said, well, it's just not fair that the board members "don't get to defend ourselves, say, 'That's not true' or answer questions.' That's basic bullying. If you're going to teach kids to fight fair ... we have to do that with adults. If you don't like something I'm doing you can be very direct ... but when you're calling people names, like when they called Dr. Blackburn 'Hitler,' that's very childish."

Mike Morath proposed moving public comments to an hour before the start of board meetings -- a sort of give-and-take public hearing every month. But some of the trustees didn't dig that; that's adding more time to an already time-consuming schedule.

"I don't mind if somebody calls me a steaming pile of pig crap, frankly, but I do mind if they call or employees that," said Morath. He said that he finds "aspects" of public comments valuable, but only when they're sent to him directly. Because if you come in and say something to the board before a particular agenda item comes up for a vote, "you're not going to sway me one way or the other. You're not going to impact my behavior."

Carla Ranger, of course, was agin this whole subject: "While board members feel they're being attacked or assaulted, the people who come feel they've been assaulted, they've been attacked." They see policies and decisions, Ranger said, "and they feel helpless and hopeless and come there hoping that they can influence us and change our minds or affect our vote or affect our opinion. I always try to keep and open mind and listen so that I have not made a decision prior to that vote. I may have something in mind, but I want to listen. ... As the attorney reminded us, we are public officials, and that does come with the territory. And there is such a thing as freedom of speech, and they can say what they want to say when they want to say it."

And, for goodness' sake, she reminded: "It's only three minutes." And: "We expect them to vote for us, we expect them to pay school taxes, we expect them to volunteer." And to tell them what they can't or can't say isn't in the board's best interest.

Nutall wasn't impressed. Yes, she said, public comments are valued and freedom of speech is fine, so long as it's done with a little r-e-s-p-e-c-t. "But if we all exercised our freedom of speech, where would we be? ... You have to as adults lead by example. You don't get the right to say whatever you feel."