Some residents say SB school district censoring public comment

SAN BENITO — Like many residents here, San Benito school board member Angel Mendez calls it censorship.

Meanwhile, the board’s majority has upheld a new policy restricting the district’s public comment period to issues addressed on meeting agendas.

After fiery debate this past week, board members voted 4-3 against revising the policy to allow residents to speak on other topics involving the school district.

Mendez and board members Mary Lou Garcia and Sonia Weaver voted to revise the policy to expand the public comment period.

“We’re not there to censor anybody,” Mendez said. “It’s not something we should take lightly. One of our services is to listen to our constituency.”

On Sept. 24, board members unanimously approved the new policy.

“At a board meeting, the board shall hear all persons who desire to make comments to the board regarding agenda items for that meeting,” the district’s new policy states.

Since the policy’s approval, many residents have argued the policy violates the spirit of a new amendment to the Texas Open Meetings Act requiring governments to give residents a chance to speak out on issues before they go to a vote.

Last month, Mendez vowed to push to expand the district’s public comment period to allow residents to speak out on topics other than those addressed on the school board’s agenda.

Meanwhile, the board’s majority argues the new policy complies with House Bill 2840, authored by state Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, which went into effect Sept. 1.

“It’s not unconstitutional and we’re not violating any policy,” board President Michael Vargas told an audience packing the district’s boardroom this past week.

Now, Mendez is urging residents to continue pushing the board to allow residents to speak on topics other than those addressed on the school board’s agendas.

“It’s up to the community to continue providing them with feedback and concerns,” Mendez said, vowing to continue to press the board’s majority to expand the public comment period. “It’s not over yet.”

Residents turn up heat

During Tuesday night’s heated school board meeting, resident Chuy Aguilera compared the board’s majority which stands by the policy to Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler’s stripping of German rights during the 1940s.

“We have a right to speak,” said Aguilera, a businessman who regularly addresses board members during public comment periods.

“You guys want to take it away from us — public comments,” Aguilera said, referring to the board’s majority. “You’re taking the rights away from the people.”

From the podium, Adan Oceguera argued the district’s policy violates the spirit of the Open Meetings Act’s new amendment.

“This policy, as it stands, is against the spirit of that amendment,” Oceguera, who works with the district’s after-school program, told board members. “By limiting comments to only agenda items, we are limiting speech. We are limiting the possibility for legitimate concerns and constructive criticism from the public to be heard.”

Meanwhile, resident Rosalinda Garcia said other school districts allow residents to speak on topics other than issues on meeting agendas during their public comment periods.

“They all allow public comment and it doesn’t have to be solely on agenda items,” Garcia, who regularly addresses the board during public comment periods, said. “Why can’t we do the same? Are we protecting someone? Is that why?”

Argument for policy revision

During the meeting, Mendez and trustee Mary Lou Garcia called on the board’s majority to expand public comment to allow residents to speak on topics other than those on the meeting’s agenda.

Mendez noted the Texas Association of School Boards states district officials could allow residents to also speak out on topics not included on a meeting’s agenda.

“A board must not prohibit public criticism of the board, including criticism of any act, omission, policy, procedures, program or service,” TASB states in its recommendations to school districts.

Before the new state law went into effect, the school board offered residents a chance to speak up on topics not addressed as agenda items — either at the beginning or end of meetings.

“The board may continue, but is not required, to receive public comments concerning subject matters not posted on an agenda,” TASB states.

Mendez called TASB’s protection of public criticism critical to drafting a policy overseeing the public comment period.

“One of the things that stand out loudly is that it may not prohibit public criticism,” Mendez told board members, referring to TASB’s recommendation. “It is important that if the community is coming up and making these statements, then we need to take it to heart and really listen to what they’re saying. I’m not going to shy away from any constructive criticism or negative criticism. It’s OK.”

Board majority’s side

Meanwhile, Vargas, the board president, stood by the district’s policy developed after consulting with the Texas Municipal League, TASB and the Texas Association of School Administrators.

“Our policy revisions do not prohibit public criticism of the district and our governing body,” Vargas told the audience. “Members of the public are free to criticize matters they sign up to speak about.”

Vargas stressed the policy complies with the Open Meetings Act’s new amendment.

“The statutory purpose was to allow members of the public to speak prior to consideration of agenda item or items,” he said. “The purpose of the statute was not only to codify that any member of the public be allowed to speak regarding any issues they wish to speak about — had that been the purpose, the statute would have been worded differently and not limited to agenda items.”