Our Opinion: New day for Wilson school board dawns as new member joins

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In the next two weeks, our school board will add a new member and has plans to subtract a shortsighted set of restrictions on public comments.

By our calculations, that arithmetic will serve to multiply public trust in the Wilson County Board of Education.

Rhyan Breen, a father of two, Wilson attorney and community leader, will be sworn in as the new District 7 school board member on Dec. 10. Breen bested well-qualified candidates Wayne Willingham and Stephanie Cyrus in last month’s midterm and succeeds Robin Flinn, who did not seek re-election.

An outspoken advocate for effective public education, Breen campaigned as a reform candidate committed to giving his constituents a voice. He shared The Wilson Times editorial page’s view that over the years, this school board has ossified, becoming too insular, bureaucratic and officious. He pledged to challenge the status quo.

“My whole mandate is to do the will of the people,” Breen told a roomful of prospective voters during a September meet-and-greet. “We need to return to people who are elected officials actually representing us. That’s how all this was set up, and we’ve lost sight of that. People get elected and they feel like they get to do what they want. That is not how our system of government was established.”

Breen was a frequent critic of the school board’s May 21 public comment policy, which requires people to sign up three days before monthly meetings and provide administrators with a synopsis of their remarks in order to address their elected officials.

“Any restriction of free speech, even procedural restriction, is a restriction on free speech,” Breen wrote when the speaker restrictions passed. “If you don’t want to hear what the public has to say, don’t be a public servant.”

It’s fitting, then, that throwing out the repressive rules could be one of Breen’s first acts as a duly elected Board of Education member.

The school board will consider a new public comment policy during a special meeting planned this Wednesday. Since the board typically requires two readings of a policy before it takes effect, the key second vote could come at the regular monthly meeting on Dec. 10, when Breen takes the oath of office.

Our District 7 member-elect deserves credit for championing the cause of open government. So does District 5 incumbent Beverly Boyette, who spurred the board to reconsider the speaker signup rules and secured seemingly unanimous consensus during last month’s meeting.

Boyette voted for the May policy but noted in her responses to a Wilson Times candidate questionnaire published Oct. 2 that the new guidelines were adopted hastily — without the standard two readings — and called for the policy to be revisited. At the next meeting, it was Boyette who made the request to add public comment rules to the November meeting’s agenda.

We aren’t sure whether Boyette convinced her colleagues to scrap the signup and screening requirements or whether each school board member saw the light independently. Either way, it was all aboard the Open Government Express when the panel met Nov. 19, and Boyette wore the conductor’s cap.

Board members directed Superintendent Lane Mills and school board attorney Brian Shaw to eliminate the three-day signup rule and restore a prior standard allowing speakers to sign up a half-hour before the meeting. As we noted last week, even 30 minutes is unnecessary, but it’s appreciably better than three days.

Speakers also won’t have to summarize their talking points in order to be granted an audience. As prior review has a chilling effect on free speech, that’s a welcome change.

It’s unclear whether the new public comment policy will give the board chairperson wide latitude to rule speakers out of order, which is what created this mess in the first place. (The May policy includes that language and was adopted after parent speakers were censored in April under prior guidelines, which the Times identified as a violation of their First Amendment rights.)

“Discretion,” North Carolina Press Association general counsel Amanda Martin told us, “is the devil’s playground.”

If the chairperson’s to be entrusted with the high-stakes responsibility of keeping order without running afoul of First Amendment case law, perhaps the board should give its gavel to Breen — a lawyer well-versed in free speech issues whose steady hand is best able to prevent a constitutional calamity.

Alternatively, Boyette has emerged as a leader among the incumbents and would make an excellent chairwoman when the new board is sworn in.

After months of calling for change on the Wilson County Board of Education, we’re heartened to see it materialize. With an energetic citizen advocate taking his seat at the table and a better public comment policy on the cusp of adoption, the school board seems to be turning over an encouraging new leaf.