Editor’s Note: The following opinion column was written by Michael Smith, reporter at the Ithaca Voice. As always, we encourage alternative or dissenting viewpoints. To submit one contact me anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org.
DRYDEN, NY – On more than one occasion during Monday’s Dryden Board of Education meeting, the proceedings threatened to devolve into chaos.
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The topic of discussion was the employment status of Krista Easton, a music teacher beloved by many students and parents in Dryden.
For most of the evening, discussion was peaceful and positive, albeit very passionate. Many supporters of Easton even expressed how this was in keeping with the values that she taught — values of love and respect above all. Several people lauded the school board and administration for their patience and willingness to hear the public on the issue.
Some people, however, took a more negative view of the situation and the Dryden administration, and for that, they were silenced.
The first person whose speaking privileges were revoked was Dottie Doane, who said she was Dryden middle school’s family and consumer sciences teacher until Jan. 19 of this year.
Doane said that she was called into the office on that day. She assumed that she was being called in because during a class on child care, she had shown a video that discussed breastfeeding.
“They didn’t show any skin, but I figured just because you mentioned that word and some of the boys giggled, that’s why I was being brought in,” Doane explained. “That wasn’t the case.”
Instead, Doane said, she was given a letter by the principal that she was asked to sign and agree with. She didn’t agree with some of the assessments in the letter.
“At that point I was told that I had to agree with it. I didn’t know enough to find out what my options were,” Doane said.
“I was given the option to stay for the next eight days to finish up the semester,” she continued. “But I chose not to do that because I knew that I would be crying in front of all my students.”
“Tonight, when I came here I found out for the first time that my students were told that I was having medical problems. I am perfectly healthy,” Doane said.
Doane went on to explain that she ran into the school nurse while shopping, and the nurse congratulated on her retirement.
“I said, ‘I’m not retired, I was fired.’ And I refuse to go along with the lie that is being told about me,” Doane said.
It was at that point that school board President Karin LaMotte stepped in, saying, “You definitely have some concerns, but this isn’t the right forum.”
Doane argued that this spoke to a pattern in the school’s administration, LaMotte insisted.
That was when cross-talk erupted. Voices came from the crowd, saying things like “Let her speak,” and simply “Freedom of speech.”
LaMotte struggled to regain control, saying, “This is not where we bring up accusations of what has happened from employees,” and repeatedly having to raise her voice over the murmurs of the crowd.
“She is claiming that school employees lied. That is serious and I don’t want to discuss it here because it is the wrong forum for that to happen,” LaMotte said in response to someone’s question of what Doane had done wrong.
Privilege, not freedom, of speech
It is a common misconception that freedom of speech means that you can say anything, anywhere.
Meetings of publicly elected entities like the Dryden Board of Education are governed by New York State’s Open Meetings Law. This law recommends, but does not require, such meetings to allow for public comment.
The Dryden school board’s policy is clear, however. It says: “The Board has the discretion to deny requests or to curtail or stop the discussion by any person granted the right to speak.”
Furthermore: “No persons shall orally initiate charges or complaints against individual employees or students of the District… all such charges shall be referred to the Superintendent for investigation and report.”
The Open Meetings Law also includes exemptions to its provisions when it comes to issues that are confidential under federal or state law.
So to the question of whether or not LaMotte was in her right to cut Doane off, the answer is a clear-cut yes.
The greater question, perhaps, is should she have?
The thin line between criticism and negativity
Following Doane’s speaking time, she received raucous applause. The very next speaker, Matthew Haney, a parent of two Dryden students, ran into the same roadblock.
“I believe the board of education has two purposes,” he said. “To represent the interests of the citizens of the Dryden Central School district, and to act as a check and balance to the professional administration who run the school operations day-to-day.”
Haney went on to say the “great lesson” of the Easton case was the failure of those administrators leadership during a difficult time.
“In my opinion, instead of amending a rift, administrators have opened it further. Instead of clearing up confusion they have caused greater confusion and disharmony,” Haney said.
Haney went on to speak specifically about what he felt was the leadership failure of Dryden Superintendent Sandy Sherwood before he, too, was interrupted.
“I’m going to stop you there. You’re also going down that road, so please try and keep it positive,” LaMotte interjected.
“Ma’am, I have no issue with Ms. Sherwood as a person, I am simply offering an opinion,” Haney retorted.
“This isn’t the forum for derogatory comments on any employee,” LaMotte said, adding that it was part of the board’s protocol.
“I think you misunderstand the fact that dissatisfied citizens are trying to express that satisfaction. If you perceive it as negative, that’s your opinion,” Haney argued.
“If I perceive it as negative, then it is negative, and I have asked everyone…” LaMotte said, as derisive chuckles and cross-talk once against erupted throughout the assembled crowd.
“It is not that we don’t want to hear it,” LaMotte said in response to accusations of censorship. To Haney, she continued: “If you have any comments that you can finish up in respect to Mrs. Easton and your feeling toward her in a positive way, and not in criticizing the superintendent. This is not the forum for that…” LaMotte said.
Haley did not oblige. He used his final comment to call for the resignation of Sherwood, to enthusiastic applause.
Fuel to the fire
Regardless of the protocol and procedure, it’s clear that how that protocol was enforced at the meeting does not cast the school in a positive light.
The policies in place make sense if you consider that the school would want to avoid potential issues of defamation or character assassination, particularly in regards to students.
But where do you draw the line between legitimate criticism and negative or defamatory comments?
While I am by no means a veteran of public meetings given my short tenure at The Ithaca Voice, I have been to enough that I was incredibly surprised at how the Monday’s meeting in Dryden was handled.
As one would expect, proper decorum is always expected during public comment periods. People are asked not to yell, curse or insult others and I’ve yet to see anyone break that rule. This was the first time that I have seen criticism — even very directed criticism — shut down outright.
For example, during public meetings in Enfield and Caroline in January, following the revelations of water lead-level tests, at least one resident told Tompkins Health Director Frank Kruppa, to the man’s face, that he ought to be ashamed of himself and resign. No one’s speaking time was cut.
During an Ithaca City School District Board of Education meeting regarding New Roots charter school, also in January, members of the public and even members of the school board, made comments about New Roots and its principal that bordered on vitriolic. No one speaking time was cut.
During another ICSD Board meeting this month, former congressional hopeful Scott Noren directly criticized and called for the resignation of and EPA investigation of Superintendent Dr. Luvelle Brown over the lead issue. His speaking time was not cut.
Perhaps even more confusing, during the very same Monday meeting in Dryden, a parent named Margie Malepe spoke about how she had pursued litigation against the school previously — and won — after she claims that multiple emails and letters she sent to the board were ignored.
Malepe’s comments barely touched on Easton, were certainly not positive and were directly accusatory and critical of the entire board, yet her time was not cut.
Dryden’s Board is, again, within their rights to deny people’s speech. But when the issue at hand is by necessity shrouded in secrecy and conspiracy theories abound, the appearance of selectively censoring calmly-expressed criticism only adds fuel to the fire.
(Featured photo courtesy Chelsea Fausel of Fausel Imagery)
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