Newspaper Article Archive of
The Highland school board has approved a $150,000 settlement with a parent who claimed her First Amendment rights were infringed when she was not allowed to make negative comments about a district employee during a school board meeting.
School district Superintendent Ken Crawford said the district settled the lawsuit to avoid the cost of a trial.
The board approved the settlement on a unanimous vote Oct. 16, Crawford said.
The lawsuit was brought by Abigail Cawiezell-Sojka after she was denied the opportunity to make negative comments about a district employee during public forum sections of board meetings.
Crawford said the district has updated its policy because of the litigation.
“We’ve complied with the law,” he said.
Tammy Votava, communications director for the Iowa Association of School Boards, said that the association has sent out updated sample policies for school boards to adopt in the wake of the ruling.
“We are encouraging boards to balance the rights of staff and employees with citizen’s First Amendment rights,” she said.
The sample policy for public participation states that boards cannot regulate the viewpoints of people talking during time periods set aside for public comments. It urges board members not to respond to comments.
She said prior sample policies steered citizens toward constructive criticism and away from negative comments.
At Mid-Prairie School District, Superintendent Mark Schneider said he is reviewing the board’s current policy but does not plan major changes.
“We are looking into our policy to make sure people have freedom of expression rights,” he said. “We need to fine-tune ours but not make wholesale changes.”
Money for the Highland settlement will come from the district’s insurance company. Some of the money will come from the district’s management fund, not the general fund, Crawford said.
In addition to the monetary payment, the school board president will read an apology at the board’s first November meeting. The apology, spelled out in the settlement agreement, acknowledges that the school board violated Abigail Sojka’s First Amendment rights by denying her the opportunity to comment on personnel during board meetings over the past four years.
The settlement releases the district from future litigation stemming from claims prior to the settlement by Cawiezell-Sojka.
The settlement stipulated that the district was not admitting liability.
Crawford would not comment beyond outlining the terms of the settlement and that the district has changed its policy.
“We’re trying to move past this,” he said.