Public comment back where it belongs in D86

Four times last year we criticized leaders in Hinsdale High School District 86 for the way they handled residents who wanted to express their opinion at a board meeting.

Today, we congratulate them.

For the first time in four months, the “public comment” section of the agenda was back where it belonged last week, near the beginning of the meeting.

Two audience members who attended in person stepped up to the microphone, and comments were read from four residents who submitted them via email.

Right now the hot topic is getting kids back to full-time in-person learning. In December 2019, residents were coming out in droves to ask questions and express concerns about a plan to change the science sequence at Central from biology-chemistry-physics to physics-chemistry-biology.

At the Dec. 12 meeting, three residents were prevented from reading a letter that was critical toward the then-assistant superintendent for academics. Someone got up and literally removed the microphone from the podium. We were stunned.

So were the residents, who filed a lawsuit with the U.S. District Court Northern District of Illinois, claiming the board violated their First Amendment rights and the Illinois Open Meetings Act. As part of the settlement, board members agreed to listen to a presentation on the First Amendment and Open Meetings Act.

Months passed. Then, in September, board President Kevin Camden grew irritated with residents who came to speak and then left before listening to the board’s deliberations. He announced he was moving public comment to the end of the meeting. Two weeks later, on Sept. 24, if someone wanted to speak, they would have had to wait more than two hours to so do. It’s no surprise that no one attended. We published an editorial Oct. 1 with a plea to return public comment to the beginning of the agenda.

We were dismayed again six weeks later when we observed some board members’ reaction to the presentation on free speech and open meetings. Questions asked at that meeting seemed designed to find loopholes that would allow the board to stop the public from speaking. Later that evening, when public comments submitted via email were read, it was an exercise in futility. Residents were weighing in on the move to an integrated math curriculum, an issue the board had voted on 12 agenda items earlier.

Why rehash all this now? We want readers to understand the significance of public comment — especially those who don’t regularly attend meetings of the school, village or library boards.

We’re not suggesting that board members always need to do what their constituents suggest — or that the suggestions from constituents are always reasonable or well-informed. And they’re certainly not always presented cordially.

But it is the job of elected officials to listen. Especially now, when more people seem to believe it’s OK to silence those with whom they disagree, we rely on local boards to stand as beacons of democracy.

We’re thrilled to see District 86 is doing just that.