Board Member Wants to Drop In on the Campus. Problem?

The Daily Dawg for this week is going to be entirely based on SB 1566, a new law that is chock full of interesting provisions. Let’s start with the issue of board members who visit school campuses.

This can be a confusing situation for a board member.  One day you are an interested and involved parent.  You drop in at the school fairly regularly.  They know you there. They appreciate your involvement and the number of things you volunteer for.  You are welcome in the office, and even in the teacher’s lounge.

Then you get elected to the school board.  You continue to bop in for visits to the school, but now, it somehow feels different.  What to do?

As of next school year, your district will have a school board policy about this.  Here is a short excerpt from SB 1566:

A district shall create a policy on visits to a district campus or other facility by a member of the board of trustees of the district.

This is long overdue.  Superintendents and principals have expressed concerns about this issue for decades.  Board members are usually well intentioned, but sometimes unaware of how their changed status alters perceptions of the teachers.  The board member who drops in on a school, particularly if the board member has no child at that campus, creates a ripple effect. Sometimes there is apprehension bordering on fear: “What was that about?”

Superintendents sometimes view the board member visiting the campus as the first indication of a governance problem, the first sign that the board member is attempting to usurp the superintendent’s role.  Sometimes that’s exactly what it is.  Then again, sometimes superintendents overreact.

So this is an excellent issue for the board to address through policy.  That way, there will be a common set of rules, approved by the board.  Most districts already have a policy that addresses visitors to a campus, including board members.  You can find this one at GKA Local. Look for an update from TASB (it will be included with Update 109) with more specific language about board members.


What are the free speech rights of a school board member?

At the recent TASA/TASB Convention my law partner, Karla Schultz, presented a session on this topic along with TASB attorney Mark Tilley. It was very interesting and informative.    Karla and Mark reminded me of a case from long ago that went to the Supreme Court during the tumultuous 1960s.  The case involved Julian Bond, who was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 1965.  Mr. Bond achieved fame prior to his election as the Communications Director of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  SNCC was a controversial organization at the time.

After his election, but before he was sworn into office, Mr. Bond gave a radio interview in which he expressed his views about the War in Vietnam and the draft.  Those views were decidedly left wing, and did not sit well with a majority of the members of the Georgia legislature. In fact, the House members voted 184-12 to refuse to allow Mr. Bond to take his seat in the House. Mr. Bond sued, claiming an infringement of his First Amendment rights.

He won.  The Supreme Court acknowledged that an elected official can be required to swear to support the state and federal constitutions.  But once Mr. Bond did that, it was improper for the other members of the legislature to question his sincerity.  Thus the Court held that Mr. Bond had not waived, forfeited or diminished his free speech rights by running for office. He could take his oath to support the constitution, and then take his seat. The case is Bond v. Floyd, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1966. You can find it at 385 U.S. 116.

That same logic applies to school board members. School board members do have a right of free speech.  But as the presentation by Karla and Mark pointed out, school board members are restricted by other laws. Most prominently, the Texas Open Meetings Act limits board member speech in some ways, and board ethics limit them further.  Matters discussed in closed session, for example, are supposed to stay in closed session.

So it’s tricky, and a Dawg post is not the place to try to lay out all the complexities of this topic. Your board members do have a right of free speech. But be careful.  Seek legal advice when questions arise.  At Walsh Gallegos, we will be happy to help you.


 File this one under: BOARD GOVERNANCE