Washington Local School Board members were intent on avoiding any disruption when they recently took up discussion of whether to lift the ban forbidding former Superintendent Patrick Hickey from setting foot on school property.
In fact, the board was dead set on restricting that discussion as much as possible.
School Board President David Hunter announced that public comment from the audience would be limited. No one would be permitted to address the topic of Mr. Hickey or the ban the school board slapped on him after a 2016 incident at a Whitmer High School basketball game that included giving an unwelcome embrace to then-interim Superintendent Cherie Mourlam.
Mr. Hickey resigned as superintendent in 2016 shortly before the school board could entertain a resolution to fire him because of 37 charges compiled by a law firm hired to investigate his behavior. Those charges included allegations that he failed to inform Washington Local that he had left Addison Community Schools in Addison, Mich., in 1990 after accusations surfaced that he had inappropriate relationships with students.
He also has been the subject of a court order to stay away from a female board member who accused him of harassing her and a complaint from a husband and wife — both teachers in the district — who accused Mr. Hickey of harassing them after a relationship between the wife and Mr. Hickey ended.
Despite all of this, voters elected Mr. Hickey to the school board last month, posing a dilemma for school board members regarding the ban that prohibits him from school grounds. The outgoing board rejected a motion to drop the ban, though that may change when the new board is seated in January. However the board decides to handle the ban question, one thing is certain — it botched the debate about the issue.
In restricting public comment on the matter Mr. Hunter mangled both logic and Ohio open meetings law:
“This is a meeting of the public, not a public meeting. These decisions that are being decided, concerning this board and the next board, are very legally involved. So to allow that microphone to be open allows liability to this board, and we have to be protected to protect the monies of the school system.”
School boards are required to do the public’s business in public. And when they allow public comment, they are not allowed to limit the topics. Yes, a public debate over the lightning rod that is Mr. Hickey is bound to get disruptive.
But since he was elected Washington Local school board meetings are bound to be disruptive for the foreseeable future. The district IS disrupted. Voters put a disgraced, ousted superintendent with a history of drama and legal issues in office.
The school board may insist that public comment be civil and courteous. The board may limit speakers to a reasonable amount of time behind the microphone. They can demand that speakers stay on topic and not slander anyone — including Mr. Hickey.
But critics of Mr. Hickey and his political foes are not going away. And stifling public debate on issues related to him is not an appropriate — or legal — response.