Vernon School Board Member Wants To Restrict Members From Speaking Out

VERNON -- A member of the Board of Education, upset over fellow members independently voicing their opinions on school-related matters to constituents and the media, wants to clamp down on the expression of those opinions by forbidding them from being expressed at all outside the confines of official board meetings.

The proposal by board member William Higgins to enact what would amount to a limit on the free speech rights of his colleagues comes amid mounting pressure on the board to open a formal inquiry into misconduct allegations against Superintendent Art DiBenedetto.

The allegations were detailed in a letter to the board three months ago but were not fully disclosed until the letter was anonymously released to the media earlier this month.

Higgins, a supporter of DiBenedetto, expressed his frustration at Thursday's board meeting over fellow members, in his view, telling tales out of school.

"We have people flexing their opinions, some factual and some not," said Higgins, who urged his colleagues to consider adopting a policy prohibiting members of the Vernon board from speaking to the media.

"If a board member has an opinion, I don't think that board member should give a personal opinion to any newspaper," Higgins said.

Higgins' proposal follows board member Bradley Sparta's call earlier last week for people to focus more "on the positives" and "less on the negatives" in the district.

In reply, board member Edward DeYoung said: "Negative news is going to be in the paper if there's negative news to report. Positive news will get reported when there's positive news."

Higgins was unable to offer any examples of board members independently offering their opinions to the media in regard to the recent allegations against DiBenedetto. However, he lamented a February article in the New Jersey Herald in which DeYoung had expressed skepticism regarding DiBenedetto's grade-level reconfiguration plan in the run-up to that night's scheduled vote on the plan, which ended up passing on a 6-3 vote.

Higgins voted for the plan, and DeYoung voted against it.

Higgins, who declined to be interviewed in February for that same article, said Thursday that he personally has always turned down requests for interviews. "It just feeds the fury," Higgins said.

His proposal to limit board members' ability to speak their minds outside of board meetings appeared to receive the endorsement of fellow board member Cynthia Auberger, who also holds a seat on the New Jersey School Boards Association's Board of Directors.

Auberger, in offering support for the proposal, stated that only the board president was authorized to speak for the board as a whole.

As for board members offering their personal opinions on school-related topics to the media or in other settings outside of official board meetings, Auberger said: "It's not something we should be doing."

"None of us," Auberger added, "wants to be surprised when we open up the paper on Sunday morning and find out there was a phone interview with one of us that none of us knew anything about, and to find that the opinions voiced by that person during the interview are not necessarily the opinion of all of us."

DeYoung, however, said board members have the right to voice their personal opinions to the media as long as they clarify that they aren't speaking for the board as a whole.

"This is still America as far as I know it," DeYoung said. "It's freedom of speech, the First Amendment."

Janet Bamford, a spokesperson for the New Jersey School Boards Association, confirmed in a statement to the Herald on Friday that board members do indeed have that right and do not forfeit their First Amendment rights when serving on a school board.

"Typically boards, as a best practice matter, will designate someone to be the spokesperson for the district, usually the board president and the superintendent," Bamford wrote.

"However, school board members retain their First Amendment rights to comment on anything; however, they must make certain that it is known that they are only speaking for themselves, and not on behalf of the Board of Education."

DeYoung acknowledged the board president's role as spokesperson in certain cases such as sensitive legal matters requiring clarification of the board's legal position or the consensus of the board as a whole.

But outside those narrowly defined circumstances, "I can express my opinion here in public, in a public forum, and if a reporter asks for a comment afterward, I can give a comment if I want to and I'm going to do so," DeYoung said.

"It's my opinion," he added. "I never speak on behalf of the entire board or the administration. I speak for myself."

Board President David Zweier, who had earlier suggested the board was suffering from a communications problem, responded that a "slippery slope" could nonetheless be created by the public perception of an individual board member's opinion representing the viewpoint of the entire board if not accompanied by an explicit disclaimer to the contrary.

DeYoung, however, said he has never purported to speak for anyone but himself when stating an opinion and always makes it known that the views he expresses are his own.

"When I was asked (in February) about what is your opinion on the reconfiguration, I gave my opinion and I reiterated my words at the board meeting the following night," DeYoung said. "It was my opinion, not the opinion of the entire board."

A high school student, meanwhile, suggested at Thursday's meeting that the communications problem referenced by Zweier stemmed not from too many board members openly speaking their minds on controversial topics but too few of them doing so.

She also suggested calls to limit board members from voicing their opinions and for more positive media stories about the district were missing the point.

"It's dangerous to say we're a great district and therefore we should only report on the positives," said Zoe Heath, a junior. "We're a great district, but we also have our own issues. To ignore these is dangerous and troubling."

Zweier denied wanting to focus only on positive stories to the exclusion of other issues and problems facing the district.

"None of the board members or administration want to cover up issues that we have in the district," Zweier said. "We want to focus on those, but we also want to highlight the positives as well."

Zweier, in his remarks, took exception to rumors he suggested had been disseminated over the past few months by some members of the public on social media and in other venues.

But, said Heath, "Rumors fly around when we're not given information. There is a very long letter (from the principals and administrators) against Mr. DiBenedetto that came out March 22 that has not been spoken of once this evening, and now it's June 15. Why was there no public discussion or some sort of public statement from the board?"

Zweier responded that the issues raised in the letter had, in fact, been addressed by the board "from the day that letter was received." However, he indicated the board was legally obligated to discuss them confidentially.

"Just because it's not visible to the public doesn't mean we haven't spoken about it," Zweier said. "Because it's a personnel issue, there are certain things we cannot talk about in public, but to say we haven't addressed certain things that are being reported is just not an accurate statement."

"There are other incidents," Zweier added, "that have happened with teachers and administrators that also don't get talked about in public because they have a right to privacy, and this man (DiBenedetto) has the same right to privacy."

The effort to discourage dissident board members from speaking out on school-related issues is not new, nor is it limited to Vernon.

In December 2015, High Point Regional High School Board of Education member Ken Nelson came under fire for suggesting to the New Jersey Herald that he would vote against a proposed collective bargaining agreement with the district teachers' union. Following the vote, he publicly criticized the terms of the agreement.

A High Point teacher involved in the negotiations subsequently threatened Nelson, whose term on the board expired at the end of last year, with an ethics violation for expressing his views to the media and called on the board to "send a message" that "it's something that can't be tolerated."

Shortly afterward, Nelson and several other High Point board members independently confirmed to the Herald that they were unaware of plans by the superintendent and board president to attend a mediation session in Trenton related to a legal dispute between High Point and Montague in their send-receive relationship.

The mediation plans were reported in the Herald but had not previously been disclosed by the superintendent or board president.

The High Point board later passed a mostly symbolic resolution in early 2016 designating its president and vice president as the board's sole official spokespersons.

Eric Obernauer can also be contacted on Twitter: @EricObernNJH or by phone at 973-383-1213.

Source : http://www.njherald.com/20170619/vernon-school-board-member-wants-to-restrict-members-from-speaking-out

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