Standing at the microphone, Bob Zick was gaining steam in his diatribe against the St. Paul school board when he accused its members of “glamorizing homosexuality.”
St. Paul Board of Education Chairwoman Mary Doran cut him off. “All right. That’s enough,” she said, and banged her gavel twice. “You’re out of order.” Zick kept talking but his microphone went dead and a St. Paul police officer grabbed Zick’s arm and tugged him away from the lectern.
The scene, recorded on the board’s webcast from June, was the third time Zick has been escorted out of the board’s public comment session. But it’s likely the last time in a while that TV and webcast viewers will see it happen.
The board voted 5-1 on Aug. 18 to stop televising the public comments that begin every meeting. The change accompanied the approval of a new policy that the board said would give more attention and visibility to written comments.
Three speakers in the public comment session urged the board not to do it. One of them, Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change, called the plan a “shame and a sham.”
The policy would have sailed through without even a nod to those speakers, had Board Member John Brodrick not spoken up. Shutting off the cameras when regular people address the board “betrays the meaning of public comment” because it takes the “public” out of it, Brodrick said.
Board Member Anne Carroll responded by noting the outsized attention given to the public comment, compared to the e-mails, phone calls and other ways the public communicates with board members.
“What happens in that 30 minutes with two or zero or five people, sometimes many many more, but usually a small number, gets a huge amount of play and press, and all those other situations, nobody ever hears about,” she said.
Brodrick cast the sole no vote.
When I asked Carroll last week what’s achieved by stopping the televising of public comments, at first she called it a “false question.” So why did she vote to do it? “There is no answer,” she said, and then referred me to what she said at the board meeting.
Board Vice Chairman Keith Hardy did have an answer: He hopes the change will help “decenter whiteness” by encouraging a more diverse group of public commenters to come forward. These are people who are more interested in constructive commentary than performing for the camera, he said.
I reviewed a number of the archived webcasts from this year, expecting to see public comment sessions dominated by rants, insults and cursing. Instead, most of the speakers were parents, staff and students who brought up real issues. Complaints about overcrowded classrooms and cuts to an elementary school music program. Recognition of a high-achieving high school robotics team. Support for a gender inclusion policy.
Some of the voices quavered. Others were strident, or humble, or jubilant. Despite the board’s policy of letting the comments go without a response, board members occasionally chimed in with plaudits and applause.
But then there were a few regulars like Zick, who make the board chair grip her gavel.
Zick is a graduate of St. Paul Public Schools who worked in the district’s facilities maintenance for 28 years. He also has a cable access TV show, which he plugs during every public comment, that’s a forum for broadsides against Superintendent Valeria Silva, among other topics.
He sees the public comment change as an attempt to censor him.
“We have turned our schools into these institutions of secular humanism, and if somebody comes there with a moral Christian Jewish underpinning, that becomes a threat to them,” Zick said.
Hardy denied that it’s an anti-Zick policy. He also noted that with school board elections coming up, the new board could revisit the issue in January.
Meanwhile, the school board will likely see a drop in its ratings, now that the most entertaining moments will take place off-camera. That may help keep meetings orderly. It does nothing for democracy.
Contact James Eli Shiffer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-673-4116. Read his blog at startribune.com/fulldisclosure.