PHILADELPHIA - Two community groups filed suit today against the Board of Education of the School District of Philadelphia, saying that the board’s new policy limiting public comment at meetings violates the state Sunshine Act.
In January, the board implemented its new policy limiting the number of student speakers to ten and non-student speakers to 30. Each speaker is also limited to two minutes. Represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and the law firm Offit Kurman P.C., UrbEd and the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools (APPS) state that both restrictions suppress public participation in board meetings and conflict with the Sunshine Act, which provides guidelines for government agencies to conduct their business transparently, with enforcement mechanisms.
The plaintiffs are asking the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas to require the Board of Education to halt enforcement of these new rules and require the Board to hear from all of the students and community members who want to speak, and to allow each speaker at least three minutes. The lawsuit was filed during Sunshine Week, the annual national celebration raising awareness of transparency in government.
“Parents, students, and all city residents have a right to participate in school board meetings,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “The school board has not provided any legitimate reason for why they have had to suddenly change a policy that has been in effect for at least five years. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, they have managed to conduct their business while respecting the rights of the public to comment. Unfortunately, the board's new policy significantly restricts the public's ability to participate and influence board actions."
The Board of Education’s updated policy went into effect before its meeting on January 28. After the ACLU of Pennsylvania sent a letter to the board on February 9 that warned it was in violation of the Sunshine Act, board President Joyce Wilkerson responded on February 17, saying that she believes that the agency is in compliance with the law.
The board proceeded with its meeting on February 25 with the limitations in place. Ten students and 30 non-students spoke at that meeting, including several who addressed the policy on public participation. At least one student speaker from UrbEd was unable to speak because registration for students speakers filled up early. Many speakers were cut off in mid sentence because of the extremely short time limits.
“The Board of Education exists to serve the students of Philadelphia,” said Tamir Harper, executive director and co-founder of UrbEd, a non-profit organization that advocates for equitable and quality education in Philadelphia. “By rights, and by law, it is their job to hear from those students, and the new policy limits the opportunity for students to be heard by them. That is why UrbEd has joined this effort to end the district’s limits on public participation.”
“The Board of Education cannot rule by fiat, arbitrarily changing the rules for public speakers from one public meeting to the next,” said APPS co-founders Lisa Haver and Karel Kilimnik in a statement released by the organization. “The board, as the district’s governing body, must allow adequate time for parents, educators, students, and community members to speak on crucial issues facing the district.”
UrbEd and the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools are represented by Mary Catherine Roper, Andrew Christy, and Andrea Anastasi of the ACLU of Pennsylvania and Megan Shannon of Offit Kurman, P.C. A copy of today’s filing is available at this link.