WESTOVER — The last time a parent addressed the Somerset County Board of Education in person and without an appointment was at the September 2020 meeting.
Matt Lankford spoke to the board about books on the reading list for his son’s ninth grade class at Crisfield High School and their gratuitous use of violence, foul language, and racial division.
"I want to bring our society together," he said, after playing an audio excerpt from the novel All American Boys. "I don’t think this book does that," adding that if board members did not know this book was being used in school "it’s a huge problem."
Seven minutes after Mr. Lankford returned to his seat the three board members present took a single vote to amend Public Participation Policy 100-12 by adding an email address to receive public comments.
That same vote also removed the opportunity to stand up and speak in-person without an appointment.
Superintendent Dr. John Gaddis said at the time that email is a better because comments can be forwarded day or night while at the monthly meetings "we’ve had to cut somebody off" because of time limits (20 minutes total, with each speaker given 2 minutes).
Also, speakers have been known to mention staff or students by name which would be inappropriate in an open setting. Dr. Gaddis said he talked to the board attorney about this, concluding the email method "is an opportunity to actually get more input" and receive "a written record" on a topic of concern.
One year later, however, Mr. Lankford was back, this time appearing virtually under the provisions of Policy 100-10 titled "Request to Address the Board" which requires information from the speaker to be submitted at least eight calendar days in advance.
He questioned taking a vote on the Public Participation policy "in haste" without all of the members present and transitioning it to written statements by email only.
He said public education should be on view openly.
"Our voices should be heard in front of the school board, the superintendent, school employees, the parents, the students and the citizens," Mr. Lankford said. The speaker should be heard by "everyone" and be transparent and "on the record."
Had his remarks last year not been in a public forum parents would not necessarily know what their child was reading in school. Email under the current policy is not read into the record in front of the public, and Mr. Lankford said they are treated like private correspondence as if they are "top secret information...squashing the people’s voice and keeping a lid on any unpopular concerns of the people."
Following his remarks, board attorney Fulton Jeffers said the board does not make comments but on that Mr. Lankford wrote the board and superintendent the following day to say the request to appear policy provides board "discussion or the presentation of a proposal."
"Shouldn’t the Chairwoman, after my presentation was made, ask the SCBOE and the Superintendent, ‘Do you have any questions for Mr. Lankford?’", calling what occurred at the meeting a "clear violation of policy."
"Put back the true public comments, and reinstate them with the same haste and vigor that you removed them," he told the board. "We the people demand it."
It was ironic that Mr. Lankford intended to present his remarks face to face to the board during the regularly scheduled meeting, but that meeting never took place and was moved to a virtual platform one week later after some members of the public would not wear a mask in the building.
One of the speakers on the agenda from Sept. 21 was Tammy Truitt, who said after the meeting was called off that she would not be able to address the board online. One of her issues was the eight-day advance notice required to appear under Policy 100-10 because the agenda is not available that soon.
When the policy changed last year, it was approved by members Troy Brittingham Jr., Margo Green Gale and Mrs. Nicholson. Absent were Patti Monk and Robert Wells. Since then Mrs. Monk did not seek reelection and Mr. Wells resigned. Those seats are now held by Caleb Shores and Bill McInturff, with Mr. Shores saying after the August meeting there were not enough votes to restore in-person comments as previously allowed in Policy 100-12.