Public Participation At NJ School Board Meetings
Updated: Apr 23, 2021
School Board meetings can be an effective way for parents to express their dissatisfaction with Board policies, decisions and actions. Oftentimes, it can be their only chance to express their dissatisfaction with the Board and to compel Board members to reconsider their decisions through community action and without resorting to legal means. Sometimes the administrators and members of these boards actually wish the public were more involved and taking an active part in the meetings. This article will provide guidance and discuss strategies to help parents become more involved in their local school board meetings.
As public bodies, boards of education are subject to the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. This means that citizens have wide latitude when it comes to speaking in public. Reasonable restrictions on the time and manner of speech are permitted, but any attempt by a board to censure someone’s speech based on the content of what they are saying is impermissible. In this regard, boards have been found liable when they permitted positive comments about the district or staff but refused to allow negative ones. A board cannot restrict someone’s speech just because they don’t like what they’re saying. Of course, some restrictions are permitted. There is no protection for speech that is obscene, abusive, unreasonably loud, racially charged, or that threatens the safety of the listeners, and speech that is truly repetitive or totally unrelated to education or the school district may be restricted as well.
In addition to the First Amendment, New Jersey's Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) requires that a portion of each board meeting be set aside for public participation. Actually, the law says public comment and this is an important distinction. During the public participation portion of the meeting, a member of the public has the right to comment on any school district issue that he or she feels may be of concern to the residents of the district. However, note that there is no requirement that anyone from the board or administration has to respond. Meetings can get heated when someone from the board and a member of the public engage in a debate that degenerates into a shouting match. It is advisable to avoid any such debate with Board members. When dealing with confrontational school board members, administrators, or school board counsel, it is best to politely remind them that it is your time to comment and continue on. There is no requirement under the law to engage in debate with these individuals. Moreover, prohibiting you from speaking at a meeting solely on the basis of a disagreement over your viewpoint is violation of your First Amendment rights under the United States Constitution, as noted above.
The OPMA also specifically states that it is up to the board to determine the length of the public comment portion of the meeting. This can vary from district to district. In some places, twenty minutes may be sufficient, while in others it may need to be forty minutes or even an hour. Of course, on some occasions there will be issues that are so big that the board should allow for extra comment. However, note that members of the public do not have a say in how long the public comment portion of the meeting is. Nevertheless, it is also a violation of OPMA if a school board consistently fails to allow a sufficient amount of time for all of the members of the public to speak.
An important corollary to setting limits on the length of the public comment period is limiting the time permitted for each speaker. We’ve seen boards that allot anywhere from two to five minutes per speaker. Time limits are used to keep the meeting moving, to force the speakers to focus, and to prevent one or two individuals from monopolizing the discussion. However, make sure that Board members and administrators are not interrupting you during this time in an attempt to silence you by being argumentative. There are some out there who think their job as sitting board members or administrators to silence the public. Stand your ground and remind them that it is your time to speak. If this is a constant problem at your school board meetings, there are legal remedies available to you such as filing a formal lawsuit or filing a School Ethics Act complaint against sitting board members and administrators for violating the code of conduct for board members or administrators.
If your local board of education refuses to follow the Open Public Meetings Act or has violated your First Amendment Rights, please contact the Law Office of Joseph D. Castellucci, Jr. today. We possess decades of experience in handling all school law matters. We are a boutique law firm practicing in Morristown, New Jersey with a focus on providing our clients with personalized and compassionate representation with driven results. Contact our office today to schedule a consultation: (973) 285-3253.