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New year, new opportunity for D86 to listen


Last updated 1/10/2020 at 9:49am | View PDF

Tonight, for the first time in almost a month, the Hinsdale High School District 86 Board will meet.

A lot has happened since Dec. 12. Students and staff enjoyed winter break. A new year, and a decade, started at midnight Dec. 31.

And Superintendent Tammy Prentiss announced that the district is slowing down its implementation of a “physics first” science sequence at Hinsdale Central, with the phased-in roll out set to begin fall 2021.

The announcement should appease at least some of the parents who have raised loud and frequent objections to the plan. But some, we expect, will continue questioning the decision during public comment at school board meetings.

They are entitled to do so, and the board must respect that. Last month, four residents were not afforded that right when they attempted to read a letter that referenced Carol Baker, the district’s assistant superintendent for academics. At the first mention of Baker’s name, board President Nancy Pollak interrupted the speaker. Subsequent efforts to read the letter resulted in the microphone’s removal from the podium by a district employee.

The district has a reasonable interest in protecting an employee from harsh criticism or personal attacks. However, the letter (which was posted on Facebook) contains neither. It’s not a flattering portrayal of Baker, but if she is going to speak about family decisions at a school board meeting in her home district, then she has opened the door to that topic being discussed here.

When we asked the district’s communications director to identify the personal attacks in the letter, he cited comments that were “personal” and “editorialized” Baker’s decisions. He also pointed to “recent social media posts that feature attacks of a personal nature against this employee.”

Those social media posts are not justification for restricting residents’ freedom to speak. Additionally, board members had been sent the letter prior to meeting and, presumably, knew its content. And they stopped the reading anyway.

To be clear, we are not taking a position here on the new science sequence or Baker, whose contract likely will not be renewed at tonight’s board meeting.

But the board has to be very careful when limiting residents’ speech. The decision to pull the microphone comes on the heels of talks of limiting both the total amount of public comment offered at meetings and the time spent on individual topics. We’re relieved to see that proposed policy has been abandoned.

The four residents silenced at the meeting could decide to file a complaint against the district for violating their rights of free speech. We’d hate to see taxpayer money spent in the district’s defense.

Instead, administrators and board members should reflect on the decision they made Dec. 12. And if those residents happen to show up tonight with the same letter and attempt to read it, we’d strongly encourage them to listen.

— This editorial has been corrected from the version published Jan. 9.


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