Newspaper Article Archive of
The Kalona News
Kalona, Iowa
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Newspaper Article Archive of
The Kalona News

November 7, 2018 Editorial: Suit decision gives more voice to district residents
Article Pages -- as published on the The Kalona News website.

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ARTICLE DESCRIPTION:

A decision by the Highland school board to settle a district parent’s lawsuit for $150,000 is a victory for residents who want to voice negative opinions of staff members at school board meetings.

Yet you cannot look at this decision and the resulting aftermath without fear for the reputations of district employees who could be the subject of defamatory – and false – accusations in a public meeting.

It is not hard to see how the district got to this point.

The Iowa Association of School Boards previously recommended a sample policy that steered citizens speaking during public comment sections of school board meetings toward constructive criticism and away from negative comments.

Highland’s policy was based on this concept as were many policies across the state.

Abigail Cawiezell-Sojka was denied the opportunity to make negative comments about a district employee. This happened at numerous meetings, which led Cawiezell-Sojka to file a lawsuit against district alleging that her First Amendment rights were violated.

While the district settled before the case went to trial, the payment of $150,000 to Cawiezell-Sojka indicates the district or its insurance company did not think it was worth the risk of going to trial. It is important to note that the district did not admit liability in approving the settlement.

The Highland district has since updated its policy to allow all comments during the public comments section.

Citizens need an opportunity to be able to voice opinions to school boards and city councils. Those boards need to hear comments from residents – both positive and negative.

At the same time, people who speak at these meetings need to be respectful of the rights of employees. Negative comments can be made without the vitriol that we see in so many political arenas these days.

Tammy Votava, communications director for the Iowa Association of School Boards, said it best: “We are encouraging boards to balance the rights of staff and employees with citizen’s First Amendment rights.”

There was probably no better example of an open forum that presented both positive and negative comments than the Mid-Prairie school board meeting where people gave their comments on Superintendent Mark Schneider and his decision to allow a volunteer in the schools with a conviction for videotaping a student dressing 20 years ago.

Dozens of people stood up to speak. There were comments about Schneider. There were comments about the volunteer. All were civil. All presented their arguments in a constructive manner.

School board President Jeremy Pickard and the Mid-Prairie school board deserve credit for creating a forum where opinions could be voiced on a subject that so many residents were passionate about.

As school districts around the state review public participation policies in light of this lawsuit, it is important to remember that the policy needs to balance rights of both citizens to voice their opinions and employees not to be defamed.

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