As part of its ongoing efforts to educate school board members in best practices of an effective school board, the Harwood Unified Union School District’s (HUUSD) Board participated in a webinar on successful communication strategies held by the Vermont School Boards Association. At its April 27 meeting, the board discussed what members had learned, which led to disagreement regarding free speech of board members.
The webinar discussed board members’ use of social media, email, traditional media and personal conversations with the community. The webinar’s slides stated, “Take proactive steps to ensure a quorum of the board is not participating in an online ‘discussion’ about board business,” which, as the board discussed, could include copying other board members on an email response to the public. The webinar also said that “Board members should refrain from engaging in online discussions about school business” and “If a board response is indicated, it should only come from the official board spokesperson.” Further, the webinar slides said, “Unsanctioned social media groups do not represent ‘community.’ They are often closed groups and/or exist to further specific agendas. Boards and board members should refrain from engaging in the discussion within these groups (it’s OK to monitor).”
This prompted the HUUSD Board to discuss board members expressing personal opinions on social media, Front Porch Forum, or in opinion pieces in newspapers, as well as belonging to private social media groups, to the consternation of some board members.
“Nowhere in anything I signed or agreed to did it say that I lose my opinion as a citizen when I join the board,” said Jonathan Young, Warren. “If I have something to say about a topic that’s my personal opinion outside of the board’s business, I’m not going to restrict that for myself, and if I get into trouble, that’s up to me. I’m definitely going to say what I want to say when I want to say it … I’m an autonomous individual that happens to be a member of the board.”
Christine Sullivan, Waitsfield, discouraged board members from belonging to private social media groups and said that, if board members do participate in such groups, they should inform the entire board of their plan to participate and be there solely to monitor and report back to the board. Theresa Membrino, Fayston, said that, if a board member plans to write an opinion piece for a newspaper, for instance, they should bring it to the entire board first so board members are “not blindsided. It kind of stinks when someone puts an opinion in the paper when you disagree and it looks like it came from the board.”
Tori Taravella, Waterbury said, “I don’t think we should join social media groups.” Marlena Tucker-Fishman, Waterbury, asked if that included affinity spaces, meaning closed groups for certain communities to which not everyone on the board belongs. Taravella clarified that, as an example, a board member shouldn’t belong to a district parents’ group on Facebook. Young said, “I’m probably not going to pay attention to any of that.”
“We all have our own opinions,” Membrino said, “We also have the First Amendment. The one difference here is in certain social media groups if others don’t have access. Unless you are making it very clear that it’s your opinion it can cause problems for the board. When you take the oath, you’ve just got a bigger megaphone. It’s about respecting your peers, making sure the public understands this is your opinion.”
“It’s nice to have a little courtesy to your fellow board members,” Sullivan added. “People are always going to see you as a board member.”
Membrino announced that she will resign from the board effective at the close of the board meeting on May 11, 2022. Her term expires in 2024. That means there will be a vacant seat on the board from Fayston, in addition to the vacant seat from Duxbury. The board has received a letter of interest from one applicant in Waterbury to fill that seat. Kim Laidlaw was recently appointed to the other Fayston seat and participated in her first board meeting on April 27.
The board approved a bid from AC Hawthorne in the amount of $295,933 from the maintenance reserve fund to replace the Harwood Union Middle Schol roof in summer of 2022.