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  1. Opinion

Carlton: Is the school board trying to muzzle the public?

The Hillsborough County School Board no longer televises or webcasts public comment at their meetings. What they call efficiency sure looks like censorship.
Published Feb. 27, 2019

If you are the sort of person who gets disheartened about a lack of civic involvement in the world — people don't vote, they don't care — last week's Hillsborough County School Board meeting might have given you a boost.

During time set aside for regular folk to have their say before board members, high school students voiced opposition to pistol-packing teachers. Teachers asked for help for needy schools. A student spoke earnestly on the importance of school newspapers. The guy they call "The Whistleblower" wasn't there, but another frequent speaker wondered darkly whether elected officials left briefly during these meetings to make actual "backroom deals."

All part of the public discourse.

But wait. If you happened to be an interested citizen catching this meeting on TV or via webcast — which is how a lot of busy people keep up — you would not have seen any of that. As of last week, public comments are no longer a part of the meeting and now happen before it starts.

Sure, people don't always come bearing compliments. They plead cases, protest policies and even vow officials will never see re-election. Sitting on the dais getting blasted by an unhappy constituent does not look like fun.

To which I say, and with all due respect: Too bad. Listening to the public is why they get paid — well, if not the big bucks, at least the ones that come out of taxpayer wallets.

Before last week, school board meetings started at 3 p.m. The public got its chance to comment after the Pledge of Allegiance, proclamations and such, usually before 5 p.m. Now public comment starts at 3:30 p.m, the meeting at 4 p.m.

Giving people the chance to speak before the board acts is legally required. Having it webcast or televised so others can see what they said, however, is not. You just hope the officials you put in office get why it's important anyway.

School board chairwoman Tamara Shamburger said the motivation for the change was to make meetings that can last seven hours "more efficient," to help them run more smoothly and to keep speakers from having to wait. And it is true the new format means public comment starts at a specific time.

"Public comment is not about it being broadcast," she said. "The whole point is to make sure the board hears from the public."

"They're still able to speak to the board and address their concerns," she said.

Okay. But we already have these convenient ways for people who can't make it to meetings (because they have work and kids and lives) to watch them on TV or via webcast. Why shouldn't they also know what other members of the public had to say that day?

"The only point to not airing us is censorship," says Josephine Amato. She is one of those citizens who has walked the walk, regularly waiting for her chance at meetings to voice her cause: safety and restoring bus service that was eliminated for middle and high school students who live within two miles of school.

"For me it's pure and simple: It's an oppression of the freedom of speech," she says. "It's disrespect."

Bottom line: If citizens are willing to get involved, government should make sure their voices are heard.

It's up to school board members to decide: Is what they're calling efficiency — and what some members of the public see as an attempt to quiet them — really what public service is about?

Contact Sue Carlton at scarlton@tampabay.com.