Public comments will be aired again at Hillsborough school board meetings

Tamara Shamburger said she was trying to protect constituents, not stifle dissent.
Tamara Shamburger, shown in 2016, is chairwoman of the Hillsborough County School Board.
Tamara Shamburger, shown in 2016, is chairwoman of the Hillsborough County School Board. [ Campaign photo ]
Published Sept. 11, 2019|Updated Sept. 11, 2019

TAMPA — Good news for people who like to make speeches at school board meetings:

Public comments are back at the Hillsborough County School Board. Back and on camera.

No one ever cancelled the comment portion of the Tuesday afternoon meetings. But in January, board members restructured the meeting protocol and, as part of that, they agreed to omit public comments from the meeting broadcast and webcast.

That decision did not go over well with the relatively small community of advocates and activists who can be counted on to make three-minute presentations about stingy state funding, ill advised district actions, and other matters.

Apparently, some board members started getting backlash from constituents, and blamed chairwoman Tamara Shamburger. “While there was a consensus for our new way of work, there’s certainly been a case that I really don’t appreciate, of people throwing the rock and hiding their hands,” Shamburger said, near the end of Tuesday’s meeting.

Shamburger also offered an explanation for wanting to omit the public comments. She wanted people — private people, such as parents and employees — to be able to air their issues to the full board without having their remarks viewed publicly. “Everybody has a right to come and speak before this board without their personal information being aired everywhere,” she said. “I want to protect all constituents. All constituents matter, right?”

Those efforts backfired because the Tampa Bay Times live-streamed the public comments with a cell phone. The constituents told her, “Miss Shamburger, the news lady is still putting it on Facebook.”

Critics accused Shamburger of censorship, which she found ironic because “the folks that felt we were censoring folks are actually advocating for a policy that censors people by airing their information.” She commended some school boards in other counties for keeping public comments off camera. She said she will continue to fight for people “who are always voiceless, that don’t get a lot of respect.”

Despite those continued concerns, Shamburger put the matter to a vote. Should the board restore comments to the webcast and broadcast, still beginning the meetings at 4 p.m.?

The answer, by a unanimous vote, was yes.

Member Cindy Stuart, a few minutes later, thanked Shamburger for her courage.