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Unjustly silencing critics is backward move from Philly school board | Opinion

Over the past three months, the board has rolled out several changes in official board policy designed to silence voices of dissent.

A Philly school board meeting on March 18, 2021.
A Philly school board meeting on March 18, 2021.Read moreKristen A. Graham

In February 2015, School Reform Commission (SRC) chair William Green made a unilateral decision, with no public vote or notification, to have police search the bags and confiscate the signs of parents and community members who came to be heard on the issue of impending charter expansion. Several members of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools (APPS), a grassroots education group that I cofounded, refused to submit to searches and were detained and had their signs confiscated.

It wasn’t the first time the SRC tried to silence members of the public, and it wouldn’t be the last. Members of grassroots organizations including APPS often found themselves placed at the end of the speaker list despite having signed up first. But the SRC never barred me or other APPS members from speaking.

Things have changed under the current school board. Before the March 25 meeting, three APPS members were notified that although they signed up on time, they would not be placed on the speaker list.

» READ MORE: The Philly school board is facing legal challenges to its new public comment policy

Over the past three months, the board has rolled out several changes in official board policy designed to silence regular critics of district leadership, including an arbitrary cap of 10 students and 30 adults. Speakers who signed up to speak at the Dec. 6 charter hearing saw that the notice now said two minutes, instead of the usual three. When APPS members asked when the board voted on these changes, we were told that these were not policy changes — they were procedural changes — so the board didn’t have to hold a public vote or give public notification.

Even if it were true that decades of precedence could be ignored, what does it say about the board that secrecy is the best policy? Are they turning decades-long policy and precedent on its head to shield themselves and the Hite administration from criticism?

Limiting public speakers at official meetings has a chilling effect on the public’s ability to effect change. When many people sign up to speak on one topic, the board is put on notice that this is an important issue. When reporters see numerous speakers addressing the same issue, they know that the issue deserves coverage. Organizing and speaking out is the way that people in a democracy can participate in their government. Having the government determine the same number of people at every meeting, no matter how many items or what urgent issues had arisen, masks community urgency on issues. The board is attempting to silence organized education activists who act as watchdogs over the district’s governing body — one that administers a $3.2 billion budget. Imagine the city’s election commissioners banning the Committee of 70, or the SEPTA board silencing members of the Transit Riders Union.

» READ MORE: Teachers, students, parents, and Dr. Hite told us what safe schools during COVID-19 looks like to them | Opinion

The board rolled out these changes just after unexpectedly abolishing two more of its committees, venues they established when they took power back from the SRC, promising more dialogue and open deliberation of official items. The elimination of these committees means that except for the quarterly policy committee meeting, the board would hear public comment on those items only once a month, just minutes before they voted. This takes us back to the bad old days of the SRC.

APPS and UrbEd, another nonprofit education group, have filed suit in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Until the resolution of that case, Mayor Jim Kenney and City Council must stop this trampling of their constituents’ First Amendment rights by telling the school board, which they oversee, to let us speak.

Lisa Haver is a retired Philadelphia teacher and cofounder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools. @APPSphilly