Two Howard school board members defend right to voice opinions on legislation

Lisa Philip
Contact ReporterHoward County Times
"We cannot censor an individual by topic," says school board member Sandra French

Two Howard County school board members have sparked discussion about their right to express individual opinions on education-related legislation.

The discussion started at the end of the school board's regular meeting last Thursday, when members Sandra French and Cynthia Vaillancourt suggested changes to the school system's legislative committee charter to make it align more closely with the board's handbook.

The point of contention was language taken word for word from the handbook section titled "Individual Board Member Authority" that reads, "Individual Board members are free to express their personal viewpoint should it differ from a Board adopted position." The sentence is followed by a list of conditions for doing so, including properly noting "the divergence of their personal viewpoint" and not acting in a way "to undermine the collective authority of the Board such as acting in opposition to the Board's official position or failing to uphold or enforce the Board's decision."

Vaillancourt said that this language should replace current language in the charter prohibiting board members from testifying against official board positions on "legislation affecting education."

French and Vaillancourt are members of the legislative committee along with Ann De Lacy, the board's vice chairwoman.

Board Chairwoman Janet Siddiqui asked if the board had a legal opinion about the proposed replacement.

"This language, if we have a problem with it, then we have to go back to the handbook and look at it," French replied, after telling the board that the language had already been reviewed by two attorneys as part of the school board handbook.

According to the board's website, the handbook was adopted in 2004, amended in 2010 and 2014 and the most recent version was approved in February 2015.

"What I had originally thought was that, the statement that is there in red that had been in the previous legislative protocols restricts a board member's freedom of expression regarding a topic and we cannot do that," French said, referring to the existing language under the 'testimony' section in the legislative committee charter. "We cannot censor an individual by topic."

Siddiqui questioned whether or not the language in the handbook applies to board member testimony, to which French responded, "I don't think in freedom of speech you can say one thing at the dais but you can't say another thing in a letter to the County Council regarding a bill."

Vaillancourt encouraged the school system to get a legal opinion on the proposed change, but she also said, "They [lawyers] will tell you, I believe, that we can suggest and ask and put in there a strong language of discouragement to go do anything that is undermining to the rest of the board, but prohibiting it is a step too far. It would open us to a challenge.

"And I can guarantee you there you would be one," she added.

The discussion at the meeting ended when seven members voted to table action on the legislative committee charter update to allow time for the superintendent to obtain a legal opinion on the matter. French was the only member to vote against tabling the update.

"The reason I didn't vote against tabling it: Cindy and I had the same sentiment as Sandie, but we were afraid that if we didn't table it, they would simply shoot it down right on the spot," said board member Bess Altwerger. "We would rather table it than lose it altogether."

The following morning Vaillancourt took to social media to voice her concerns about restricting individual board member testimony.

"They actually believe they can 'prohibit' me from exercising my First Amendment right to free speech as an individual — no doubt specifically from testifying in support of the changes in how Board Members are elected, and how [Howard County Public School System] handles MPIA denials," she wrote on her Facebook page, referring to two education-related bills announced last month. One would require the majority of school board members to be elected by county district and the other would make it harder for the school system to deny public records requests.

Vaillancourt's Facebook post has been shared 58 times and spurred more than two dozen comments.

"Outrageous! As an elected official, I can tell you that I want to [hear] from you, especially on issues of education," County Council member Jen Terrasa wrote in response. "And I truly believe that a diversity of opinion makes us stronger not weaker!"

"Cindy Vaillancourt, the [HCEA] has your back," Paul Lemle, the president of the Howard County Educators Association, wrote. "We support your freedom to say anything, anywhere, to anyone. As a Board of Education member and as a courageous, kind human being."

On Monday, Siddiqui agreed that a board member "retains the right to testify as a private citizen on proposed legislation whether or not it is related to education," so long as he or she "does not portray their testimony as representative of the board."

"The purpose of postponing the vote on the update was to confirm that the language was consistent with the law," she said, adding that the school system's legal counsel is currently examining the proposed update to the charter and that an opinion will be released "soon."

In the meantime, a member of the county's delegation to the state has submitted the existing language in the charter to the state attorney general's office for examination.

"They got their lawyers, we got our lawyers," Frank Turner said. "Imagine if we actually ran our business in Annapolis in that way, where we only hear the majority's testimony. That's we why want to hear both sides of every issue — so we can make a constructive opinion."

Turner expects to hear from the attorney general's office in 10 days.

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