WHITTIER — One by one, the teachers and parents stepped up to the microphone to complain to the Whittier City District school board.
There is a problem with a ramp leading to an elementary school classroom, one teacher said. There is a problem with health insurance for teachers who job-share, said another. It's about time the board reached a settlement with the district's teachers who have been working without a contract since September, others pointed out.
But the one complaint they had in common was about the two-minute time limit on public speaking that the school board imposed earlier this month.
The limit infuriated the teacher's union, which organized a parade of about 30 speakers to protest the policy. The meeting drew one of the largest turnouts of the school year, and attracted the largest number of public speakers in years, district officials said.
After about two hours worth of hostile two-minute speeches, two board members asked that the time limit be reconsidered at the next board meeting Feb. 6. But the other three board members defended their decision to impose the limit, saying that specifying a two-minute period was preferable to the board's previous vague policy of a "reasonable" time limit on public speaking.
"All we were doing was trying to define 'reasonable,' " said board member Carolyn S. Estrada. "I don't really look at this as a gag order."
Board member Mary L. Boogrove called the limit "just a way to help guide our meetings. If someone had something to say, we wouldn't say, 'You can't speak.' "
Mila Corral, the only board member to oppose the time limit, asked that the action be rescinded at the next meeting. "We've never had to put these darn restraints on parents before," Corral said. "I'm real frustrated with it."
Board Vice President Janet R. Henke said she would support increasing the time limit from two to five minutes.
All the teachers and parents who spoke said the limit was unnecessary because so few people usually speak at board meetings.
"We've never had this much public speaking until you placed the two-minute limit," said Yolanda Purdy, a teacher at Hoover and Lincoln Elementary schools. "You know this is going to go on at every board meeting until you listen to us."
At several points, the criticism became personal. Teacher Paul Thomas said the board should be "tarred and feathered" for its decisions. "I'm sick of this school board," said Thomas, who teaches at Katherine Edwards Intermediate School.
Remark Brings Heated Reply
"I resent that," shot back board member Corral. "You need to know how much I resent it."
Teachers lectured the board about the importance of protecting free political speech, and wondered how they could explain the board's policy to schoolchildren.
"The next time your son or daughter asks a question in my classroom should I say, 'I'm sorry, I cannot answer your question right now because it would interfere with the administrative agenda?' " asked Jody Alcarez, a teacher at Dexter. "I think you should reconsider your policy."
The board also was criticized for its policy of requiring speakers to sign up a week in advance if they want to speak about an item that is not on the agenda. It is not necessary to request permission to address an item on the agenda.
"That's been a policy for as long as I've been in office," said Neal J. Avery, superintendent of the district for the last eight years. "It gives the board and myself time to do research for them" on the topic they sign up to speak about.
District resident David Thomas suggested the board adopt the policy of having an oral communications section at every meeting at which anyone could speak about any topic. The Whittier City school district is the only publicly elected body in the city that requires advance notice to speak at meetings or that imposes a time limit on speaking at meetings.
Teachers also complained about the timing of the decision on the two-minute limit, saying the action was a slap in the face to teachers embroiled in a bitter nine-month contract dispute with the district. Henke agreed "the timing was poor" and apologized, but said the time limit was not intended to muzzle teachers.
The teachers are seeking a 7% raise and improved benefits, while the district has offered about a 4% raise, said Marilyn Stapleton, president of the Whittier Elementary Teachers Assn. After negotiations reached an impasse last month, the two sides agreed to "fact finding" by a third party to determine whether the district has enough money to deliver the pay increase sought by the teachers. The district serves about 5,500 students in the area surrounding Whittier's Uptown business district.
Despite the critical crowd, several board members said they appreciated the large turnout.
"I think it did this board a lot of good to hear those concerns," Henke said. "I think you've made some good comments."
"I wish every board meeting was filled like this," Estrada added.