Farmington school board struggles with public comment

Farmington Public Schools trustees on Tuesday found themselves in the unusual position of redacting portions of a statement submitted for public comment.

Their lengthy discussion before taking that action reflects a larger issue with public comment sessions that have gone on for several hours during the last few meetings. Trustees are talking about re-establishing a time limit in place before the COVID-19 pandemic and creating a submission form that would route comments based on their content.

Since taking their meetings online in March, trustees have asked people to submit comments via email or by phone. The notes and transcripts are then read during the meeting.

By contrast, Farmington City Council and the Farmington Community Library Board of Trustees meet on the Zoom videoconferencing platform and recognize speakers during their meetings. Farmington Hills City Council meets via teleconference; speakers may dial in to participate.

During Tuesday’s meeting, school board president Pam Green and trustee Zach Rich took turns reading comments that ranged from support or criticism of individual board members to multiple questions and concerns from parents and teachers over back-to-school plans.

Identifying a student

Rich was reading the final comment when he suddenly stopped and said he wasn’t comfortable reading further. He said information in the note could identify a student.

The subject of the unsigned letter was an incident among students that led trustees to fire Monique Anderson-Pickens, the only Black classroom teacher at Woodcreek Elementary School. The writer claimed to be a friend of parents whose child was involved in the incident.

The letter was sent to trustees via the electronic meeting chat feature; they took a brief recess to review it, then returned for discussion.

‘It has to be read’

Board vice president Terry Johnson said, while he understood the sensitivity, the board couldn’t censor the speaker.

“We can’t say… we can’t read it because it involves sensitive information to us,” he said. “If we start down that road, the First Amendment is out the door, the Open Meetings Act is out the door, public comment is out the door. It has to be read.”

Board treasurer Terri Weems, who was named in the letter, said that if someone at an in-person meeting were to speak in a way that was offensive or derogatory, trustees would call a point of order.

“If this public comment were read, I would stop it at a point where we have a duty to protect children,” she said. “I don’t have a problem with having some advice from our attorneys on this. It’s not that the public comment won’t be read, it’s that it won’t be read at this meeting.”

Attorney: Comment crosses the line

Superintendent Bob Herrera contacted the district’s legal counsel during the meeting and said the attorney believed the statement “crosses the line in terms of protecting the child or children involved in this incident.”

“First and foremost, we have to protect the minor child,” trustee Jessica Cummings said. “There are a couple of sentences that could be removed to do that.”

Trustee Richard Mukamal pointed out that, at an in-person meeting, trustees require speakers to identify themselves.

“Because it is unsigned, that gives me pause for whether or not this should be included,” he said. “I do think, however, should we want to do that, there would be a way of protecting the privacy of the child.”

Johnson said he was more concerned about the speaker’s ability to address the board.

“My bigger issue comes down to, we’re opening ourselves up now for anything that comes through,” he said. “Someone can raise their hand and say, I don’t know if this is appropriate, maybe we should wait… We’re chipping this away.”

Weems read the letter from a Woodcreek parent except for two sentences. It chastised Weems and board secretary Angie Smith for their support of Anderson-Pickens and turning the incident into a racial issue.

New policy

Later, in a committee report, Rich said the board’s policy and governance committee is looking at how public comments, complaints, and questions can be addressed, because trustees don’t answer questions posed during a meeting.

The committee has discussed using a web form that includes checkboxes to identify types of comments. Those that raised questions or complaints would be handled through the district’s channel of communications. Public comments over 400 words – about 3 minutes of spoken testimony – would not be read in their entirety. 

“I am not a fan of limiting public comment as if we were in person,” trustee Terri Weems said. “There’s no way we can determine how fast someone is going to read it. We’re not going to have the same diction or emphasis as the owner of the comment would.”

The item was presented for discussion; trustees took no action.

CorrectionThe original version of this post incorrectly identified the trustee who read the redacted letter, and the trustee who holds the position of board treasurer. 

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