To create united front, Modesto City Schools puts muzzles on its school board members

Amy Neumann in 2015.
Amy Neumann in 2015.

Board members for Modesto City Schools agreed to a self-imposed gag rule on talking with the press and also approved guidelines for speaking with residents.

Some board members expressed reservations about the board protocols, but the guidelines were unanimously approved Monday night. The school board also is adopting rules for use of social media.

The rules to muzzle school board members are intended to present a “unified front” to the public and strengthen district governance, said Superintendent Sara Noguchi, who was hired in June.

When a board member receives a call from the media, the board president and superintendent will speak for the board or the school district, the new policy says.

In Stanislaus County, county and city elected officials often talk with the media without self-imposed restrictions, though they may be careful about sensitive issues or decline to comment on personnel issues. That’s in keeping with the nation’s celebration of free speech.

The chief proponents of the MCS protocol were board President Amy Neumann and board members John Walker and Cindy Marks. Board members Chad Brown, Adolfo Lopez and newly appointed trustee John Ervin expressed concerns with the policy but ultimately voted for it, along with Charlene West.

“I am going to have a difficult time with this,” Brown said. “I don’t want any of us to feel like we can’t speak.”

Ervin, a recently appointed board member, was not comfortable with the restrictions before the vote. “We are public servants. At some point, we have to be express ourselves to constituents and to the paper,” Ervin said.

Under the policy, the district superintendent or board president will act as spokespeople in a crisis or disaster, which is a common practice of public agencies.

Only those two officials, however, will talk with the media about business scheduled for a board meeting or about education issues in Modesto City Schools. Board members who are contacted by the press are to find out what the question is, refrain from commenting and contact the superintendent or board president, the policy says.

In some cases, another board member could be designated to speak with a reporter.

Another policy adopted Monday reads: “When speaking on behalf of the district or the board, board members have an obligation to adhere to agreed upon key messages.” To explain that policy further, Neumann said in talking with a constituent, a board member should be supportive of a board decision even if he or she voted against it.

Nuemann said the intent is for board members to speak with one voice.

Noguchi said Wednesday she was urged to strengthen the school district’s governance from virtually her first day on the job. The board initiated a discussion of board protocols at a meeting over the summer and continued to review the proposals Monday.

“One goal I was given is building strong governance, and part of that is board members knowing their roles and responsibilities,” Noguchi said.

The new policies were developed in a time of shrinking news rooms at media organizations and reduced coverage of board meetings by the Modesto Bee. MCS also has gone to vote-by-district elections, with the expectation that board members represent constituents from defined areas of the school district.

Paul Neumann, a former board member for Modesto City Schools, did not see a need for stifling the district’s elected officials. “I don’t believe any previous board would adopt such a position,” he said in an email. A previous superintendent, Jim Enochs, trusted board members to speak independently while cognizant of community concerns, Neumann wrote.

The new policies could go into effect after a second reading and will be reviewed after a year.

Noguchi told that board that, in recent weeks, media attention and the local political culture has sought to “divide and conquer” by drawing out different opinions from board members. Proponents of the policy said it would prevent reporters from counting the probable votes of board members prior to an upcoming board decision.

Marks, who has been quoted in previous news stories, suggested the reluctant board members try the policy for a year and then review it a year from now.

Noguchi said she was not aware of any penalties if board members decide to speak their mind in the coming year. She said the district won’t prohibit staff members or teachers from speaking to the media or at board meetings.

When using social media, board members are instructed not to offer an opinion on a matter that will come before the board and they agree to set an example of professionalism in posts and comments, another policy says.