Opinion: Let’s go over ground rules for civic engagement in CT

Students walked out of New Milford High School in response to the announcement last week of the resignation of principal Raymond Manka. Monday morning, April 25, 2022, New Milford, Conn.

Students walked out of New Milford High School in response to the announcement last week of the resignation of principal Raymond Manka. Monday morning, April 25, 2022, New Milford, Conn.

H John Voorhees III / Hearst Connecticut Media

Regardless of how you feel about Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter, it’s triggered passionate rhetoric over the definition and vitality of free speech.

While Twitter dominates screen time in this discourse, mirror exchanges are taking place in many of our communities.

The pandemic era thrust everyone into isolation. That doesn’t mean anyone was silenced. Municipal boards thankfully pivoted to hosting public meetings virtually.

Then a funny thing happened. People who had never been able to go to City Hall to participate in this particular democratic process suddenly tuned in to what their elected officials were up to.

The result was a collision of community engagement with issues that were predictably divisive, largely at local Board of Education meetings.

Some issues, such as mask mandates, were merely signs of the times. Others were cases where many parents were simply tuning in for the first time. But matters such as lesson plans on racism and sports policies on gender identities carved deep battle lines.

In anticipation of its first in-person BOE meeting in more than two years, Stamford is planning for a larger turnout. A police officer will be paid about $334 to cover a four-hour shift for the meeting, which was not typical before COVID. The meeting will be moved to the cafeteria to permit more attendees, and there will be an attendance cap under orders of the Health Department.

“I think that the atmosphere that we’ve seen across the state has changed a lot in the last two years, and so it’s better to be prepared,” President Jackie Heftman said. “It’s better to be safe than sorry.”

In Stamford’s case, a local issue is drawing the most fire. Two of the city’s three high schools voiced loud opposition to the district’s preferred block schedule. Staff at three Stamford schools issued a vote of no confidence against Superintendent Tamu Lucero, the board’s only employee.

Meanwhile, some 55 miles away, similar public demonstrations have taken place in New Milford. Parents demanded the removal of Superintendent Alisha DiCorpo, pointing to considerable staff turnover during the 15 months since she took the post.

After New Milford High School Principal Raymond Manka submitted his resignation last week, students staged a walkout Monday. Manka, who was previously Stamford High School’s principal, rescinded his resignation that night.

Few expressions of engagement are as bold as parental petitions, unified staff declarations and student walkouts.

Heftman is correct, the atmosphere has changed. Incidents of dramatic staff turnover were inevitable in some districts as COVID dragged on. Educators are tired after 25 surreal months. No one can blame them for seeking change.

And more parental engagement could eventually translate to more Board of Education candidates in the future. That’s a good thing.

But cities and towns should not have to pad school budgets to pay for crowd control. Civil behavior at in-person municipal meetings remains the purest form of civic engagement. Let Twitter deal with the rants.

Anyone attending board meetings in person for the first time should probably get the same heads-up as someone with a ticket to a first in-person golf tournament: There’s no yelling here.