H.B. 1130 gives Hoosiers right to speak at school board meetings

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The most intriguing legislation to emerge from the 2022 Indiana General Assembly from the perspective of government transparency was the right of citizens to speak at school board meetings.

From the passage of the Open Door Law in 1977, the public’s right to participate was limited to “observe and record.” Any opportunity to speak at regular meetings of local government units was at the discretion of that governing body. Over my three decades at the Hoosier State Press Association, I’ve surprised with that fact Hoosiers aghast at being denied the opportunity to speak at a public meeting.

How can this be when Abraham Lincoln said, “Democracy is rule of the people, for the people and by the people.” We’ve seen the Norman Rockwell painting of the American standing up and speaking at a town hall meeting.

But now at least at school board meetings, Hoosiers will have the right to speak on specific agenda items, thanks to the passage of H.B. 1130 and S.B. 83.

H.B. 1130, authored by Rep. Tim O’Brien, R-Evansville, was the first one through the legislative process. The legislation is only three pages, but gives the public the right to speak at school board meetings while allowing the school board to limit the time given to public comment and take reasonable steps to maintain order.

S.B 83, authored by Sen. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg, followed with a couple of tweaks to this change in policy. It expanded the right to speak to include the boards of charter and virtual schools. It also clarified that public comment had to be allowed before the board took final action on an agenda item.

HSPA had suggested the clarification to prevent school boards from only meeting the letter of the law by relegating public comment to the end of the meeting after all votes had been conducted – circumventing the spirit of public participation.

I believe the legislative action was a reaction to Hoosiers frustrated in their attempts to communicate with elected bodies, either over COVID-related issues such as mask mandates, or particularly with school districts over concern about what might be taught their children – picking up a national narrative of critical race theory. The General Assembly also was trying to legislative civility after seeing national footage of Virginia school board members being threatened in the parking lot after a meeting or Carmel’s school board having to recess a meeting to deal with a gun dropping out of an audience member’s pocket.

This new right to speak will go into effect on July 1. HSPA already has had a conversation with Terry Spradlin, executive director of the Indiana School Boards Association, to cooperatively work on a set of suggested best practices for the state’s school boards.

What’s particularly intriguing for me is that this may set the stage for an expansion of the public’s right to speak to other local government units. Rep. David Abbott, R-Rome City, introduced such a bill this session with H.B. 1080, which even included language concerning remedies for the public if a government unit failed to provide the opportunity for public comment.

House Republican may not have been quite ready for that proposal this year, but once it’s shown that school boards can function while listening to the concerns of their community, it shouldn’t be hard to see the legislature jump aboard on a proposal that empowers Hoosiers and encourages public participation as a civic responsibility. Who wouldn’t want to campaign on that proposition?

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