Members of the public were stopped from speaking at a recent school board meeting if they mentioned an employee’s name or criticized interim Superintendent Michael Goar.
Now district officials say they were wrong.
"The understanding became that you couldn't say a name, but that was not right," said the district's attorney Amy Moore.
At Tuesday's meeting, several teachers and staff members signed up to speak out against a recent reorganization of the district's English Language Learning department, including the decision to get rid of the department's director, Jana Hilleren. When a staff member speaking to the board mentioned Hilleren, board chair Jenny Arneson stopped her from continuing.
Another parent was frustrated with the way the district handled turmoil at a contract school that serves a large number of Somali students. The parent specifically said she was shocked by the way Goar had made a decision to take over the school. She called him "unethical and reckless."
Again, Arneson said "you can't talk about people."
Yet, when another parent got up to praise Goar for his decision, that person was not stopped.
Moore told Arneson that there was information that some teachers or staff were going to speak out and "attack" Hilleren in public, and the board cannot allow personal attacks at a public meeting. That led to a miscommunication, Moore said, where Arneson then stopped anyone from speaking for saying a name or mentioning an administrative position.
"I don't think I gave the advice, or did what was correct, at that time," Moore said.
The move left a chilling effect on some community members and staff who said they felt the district was trying to silence them.
Several staff and teachers wrote to board member Josh Reimnitz after the meeting complaining about the situation.
Reimnitz apologized "for the confusion” in an email response to the district staff.
"I've spoken with our General Counsel, and upon reflection she believes you can share your thoughts in the manner with which you approached the Board last night," Reimnitz said. "Things like, 'We support Jana because of x, y, and z.' and "Why did she get let go?" are things community members can say as their right to free speech, but not things the Board can facilitate or respond to publicly due to privacy concerns.'
This is "not a conspiracy to quash your voices" Reimnitz said, but rather an attempt to not enter into any potential legal issues in the future.