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Ely school board pushes back on open forum false claims

Keith Vandervort
Posted 11/9/21

ELY – The efforts of the Ely school board to protect the rights of free speech at their business meeting open forums has quickly morphed into a local conspiracy theory that ISD 696 wants to …

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Ely school board pushes back on open forum false claims

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ELY – The efforts of the Ely school board to protect the rights of free speech at their business meeting open forums has quickly morphed into a local conspiracy theory that ISD 696 wants to eliminate the right to address the school board.
In response to contentious meetings over COVID face mask mandates earlier this fall, where some audience members, in a mob-like atmosphere of cheering and disruptive behavior, verbally attacked school district employees, the school board is considering updating their open forum policy.
At a study session last month, board chair Ray Marsnik introduced changes to the open meeting forum that calls for those who wish to speak to the board to fill out a request form in advance. He also suggested possible school district action under Minnesota state disorderly conduct laws for those who continue to attempt to damage the reputation and credibility of school district staff.
The first reading of the locally-revised Minnesota School Boards Association Policy 206 concerning pubic participation in school board meetings was held Monday night. After three such readings, the board will vote to adopt the policy.
Marsnik went out of his way last month to directly say he was not seeking to eliminate the public forum at school board meetings.
Despite what Rep. Pete Stauber asserted in a recent locally-published editorial, neither parents nor any other member of the public has a constitutional right to provide input at school board meetings.
In fact, public input is not required by any public body under open meeting laws, although most do allow for it as a courtesy to the public. Space must be made available for the public to attend the meetings and the meetings must be advertised in advance under the open meeting law.
At the ISD 696 school board meeting this week, during the open forum portion of the agenda, Washington elementary teacher Nancy Preblich pushed back against the recent false statements published in an Ely Echo editorial.
“I was at the last board meeting and I did not in any way get the impression the board wishes to take away free speech,” she said. “The message I got was that the board is trying to protect free speech and people’s rights by clarifying how the open forum process at a board meeting is supposed to work. This clarity would help protect the integrity of the open forum, allowing people the continued opportunity to express their perspective and ideas.”
Also during the open forum, ISD 696 parent Frank Udovich criticized what he characterized as the board’s efforts at “eliminating the school board meeting open forum.” He said parents and taxpaying citizens are “simply trying to help,” and considered his efficient use of time in addressing board members all at once, rather than through private emails or off-the-record phone calls.
“I dare you to eliminate the open forum and see what the fallout is,” Udovich continued. “I have three kids in this school. Unfortunately, half of you don’t even have kids in the school and you are making policies that greatly affect them.”
He said he did not consider his tax dollars to be more important than anyone else’s in the district, and went on to reveal that he pays “approximately $29,000 a year in taxes on two properties,” and will soon “be obligated to pay” $45,000 to $50,000 a year on three properties.
“I might be more invested than your average citizen. I want you to think how hard that is to make that much money per year just to pay property taxes,” he said.
Later in the meeting, Marsnik presented the public meeting participation policy with minor language revisions and the addition, “Before the meeting, all participants must fill out the open forum request form (see addendum 1). The form may be obtained in advance at the district office, the district website under policies, or at the meeting site.”
He told board members that they still have the opportunity to make changes to the policy before the board votes on it for adoption after two additional readings at school board meetings
Board member Darren Visser looked to clear the air over the conspiracy that the school board is attacking the community’s free speech rights.
“I just want to make sure that everybody understands that we are not looking at eliminating the open forum,” he said.
Marsnik agreed, “Absolutely not.”
Visser continued, “We do value that, and we want to make sure that we maintain that part of our business (meeting) process here.”
Marsnik added, “I thought I made that clear when I presented this. If you take a look at this (policy), the only big change there is the form that we have them fill out. The reason for this (form) is that we want everyone to read the rules and sign it. By no means are we trying to infringe on anybody’s First Amendment rights or freedom to speak. I have been on this board for 20 years. I welcome public input. On the other hand, the First Amendment does not (allow) slander or to defame anyone’s character.”
School board member Rochelle Sjoberg added, “The school board is responsible for the Minnesota Statutes that have those protections in there. Those are simply the only statutes that we as a board are looking at to ensure in protecting our students, teachers, parents, etc. I don’t recall anybody requesting to remove the open forum. That was not part of our discussion.”
The public participation policy will be presented for a second reading at the ISD 696 school board’s next business meeting on Monday, Dec. 13.

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