East China school board removes public commenter from meeting
‘In light of the serious nature of these allegations,’ board will investigate its policies, president tells CapCon
Officials with the East China School District’s Board of Education say they will review their policies on public meetings, after they ejected a local resident from its April meeting.
Under current practice, anyone who wants to make a public comment at a board meeting must fill out and submit a green card before it starts. At an April 25 meeting, area resident Mike Hilferink, who was not aware of this requirement, requested to speak about his alma mater, Riverview High School, which the board was voting to close.
The board’s president, Jeanne Frank, kept him from speaking.
“It was my first school board meeting, although I have been to a lot of city meetings,” Hilferink said. “I reviewed all the policies and procedures beforehand to know what I was getting myself into, and there was no rule about filling out a green card.”
After the last person spoke during the public comment session, Frank began to move to the next item of the agenda. When Hilferink asked to speak, Frank said he would not be allowed, citing board policy.
Hilferink continued to ask for the five minutes normally granted to citizens to speak at a public meeting, but Frank called for a security guard to remove him.
Frank adjourned the meeting and the board took a ten-minute recess immediately after denying Hilferink the chance to speak for five minutes.
“I felt it was pretty unnecessary,” Hilferink said. “There is no need to treat your neighbors like that, to have arrogance and an attitude of superiority when it comes to giving five minutes to speak at a meeting.”
In February, the East China school board selected a new member in private, out of public view. By the time the board took its official vote, the new member’s placard was already made.
Allen Reichle, also in attendance at the April meeting, served on the East China school board six years ago. He said there is no official policy to make people fill out a card before speaking. It is a general practice “that just started out of thin air,” he said.
Reichle added that he was shocked by how the board handled Hilferink’s request to speak.
“I don’t understand why they were enforcing it that way,” Reichle said. “Usually if someone forgets to fill out the card, they just ask ‘Hey, can you fill this out real quick,’ and the person is always happy to do that. But they just completely shut him down. To me it was unbelievable.”
Reichle added: “The weird part was when the new security guard came and tried to intimidate him. He told us if there were going to be any more outbursts, we would have to leave. I asked him if he could name the policy that requires the green card, and he could not.”
The meeting’s 6 p.m. starting time makes it difficult for working parents to arrive and fill out a green card before the public comment session, Hilferink said.
The board has been uncommunicative and unprofessional, Hilferink said. Often, it announces meetings or work groups with very short notice and with no agenda provided, he said. Given that, he said, community members cannot adequately prepare to discuss important issues.
“These types of things just keep happening, and it doesn’t seem like they care,” Hilferink said. “All we want is community and partnership, and to feel like we’re on the same page with the school board. That really doesn’t take a lot.”
Much of the tension between the school board and parents began when parents voiced concerns about masking requirements and how the schools would handle the COVID vaccine, Reichle said.
“When I was on the board, almost no one went to meetings, and now there are 50 or 60 people at every meeting,” Reichle said. “The parents are becoming more active and involved, and they are looking at the curriculum, which I think is a good thing. The school board does not like that.”
Most members of the school board just sit and listen, but a few are more combative with the public, Reichle said.
“I think if respect was shown, it wouldn’t be as heated,” Reichle said.
Reichle has personal experience in being disrupted by the school board during the public comment time. At a May 23 board meeting, he spoke on the First Amendment. Frank and board vice president Pat Biebuyck continually interrupted him, shuffled their papers, and slammed objects as he was speaking.
“I stand by everything I said. I believe in the First Amendment. Even if someone got up there and started trashing me, I would support that person’s right to speak,” Reichle told Michigan Capitol Confidential. “If you’re in the public eye, you have to be open to criticism, and I think my criticisms were constructive feedback on how to listen to the people.”
CapCon requested comment from the school board. Frank wrote the following email in response:
“In regard to the concern that the Board does not allow individuals to address the Board during the public participation portion of meetings, the Board has complied with Board Policy 0167.3 (Public Participation at Board Meetings) and existing law. In light of the serious nature of these allegations, they will be reviewed by the Board.”
The board has moved the public comment period from the beginning of the meeting to the middle to allow people who arrive late the chance to speak before the board votes on anything.
Filling out a green card is still required, Hilferink said.
Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.