The advantages of local government come from its proximity to the people it is governing, and its ability to hear their concerns directly and answer them immediately.

It’s too bad, then, that residents of School Administrative District 6 are not allowed to speak at board meetings on the topic of their choosing, taking away their best opportunity to hold board members and school officials accountable in a public forum.

SAD 6 is not the only public organization that does this. A survey of 20 southern Maine school districts by the Portland Press Herald found two others — Scarborough and Cape Elizabeth — that do not allow public comment on matters not on the meeting agenda, and other districts around the state also have imposed this policy, or others like it that restrict public input.

Public comment periods, when allowed, do not draw a lot of traffic — most come and go with only a quick comment from an audience member, if someone is there at all. Most of the time, people are satisfied that their local elected and appointed officials are doing their job.

But when they become convinced that they are not — such as when now-former SAD 6 Superintendent Frank Sherburne violated a district policy and board members went silent — residents show up, and they want to be heard.

When something so upsets residents that they attend a meeting and they are not allowed to speak, they understandably grow frustrated. Often, it is the first meeting for these residents. They are unfamiliar with how the meetings are conducted, and can’t believe a taxpayer and parent doesn’t have the right to ask for answers, or at least vent a little. It creates an antagonistic atmosphere, and trust recedes between residents and the people who run their schools.


“They’re sitting there real arrogant, like, ‘We don’t have to listen to the things we don’t want to, because we’re the school board,” one parent said following a SAD 6 meeting.

Of course, some limits should apply. School board members have a tremendous amount of work to get through each meeting. They are in most respects volunteers who take on a difficult job for a small stipend, and their time deserves consideration. An open public comment period is not an invitation for residents to harass board members or distract from the duties at hand.

But disruptions can be contained and even eliminated by instituting time limits, and through the good-faith efforts of board members to hear and respond to constituent complaints.

When their questions and concerns are treated with respect, most residents will respond in kind. In order to get the most out of local government, school board policies should speak to those well-meaning residents, not shut them out because a very few act poorly.

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