Divided Georgia Senate passes controversial school board meetings bill

Credit: Ty Tagami

Credit: Ty Tagami

In a further sign of the hyper-partisan nature of education politics in Georgia, the state Senate on Tuesday split over legislation that confirms the public’s right to attend school board meetings.

Democrats and public school advocates said Senate Bill 588 duplicates many laws already on the books.

The legislation reiterates that public meetings are open to the public and that visual and sound recordings are allowed. It says observers cannot be ejected unless they are disruptive.

And it says people who believe they were wronged can complain to Georgia’s general jurisdictional trial court, known as Superior Court, where school boards could be made to pay attorney fees and other litigation costs.

“We’ve seen parents treated unfairly by boards of education because of their political views or disagreements, and they have been arrested and barred from attending future meetings simply by voicing their concerns,” the bill’s author, Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller, said at a recent legislative hearing. “We’ve seen the Department of Justice referring to parents as terrorists, which I think is completely inappropriate.”

Miller apparently was referring to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland’s decision last fall to order the FBI to help address what Garland called a “disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence” against educators and school board members over masks and critical race theory. Gwinnett County Public Schools was cited in one organization’s request for intervention after a rowdy meeting where parents refused to wear masks.

Miller is the second-highest ranking member of the Senate, and now the Gainesville Republican is running for the chamber’s top job as lieutenant governor. He is up against a fellow senator endorsed by Donald Trump — Jackson Republican Burt Jones.

The Georgia School Boards Association says Miller’s bill duplicates many existing protections for public participation. The Georgia Association of Educators president, Lisa Morgan, said local boards already have policies for public comment in place and asked the Senate Education and Youth Committee to stop wasting time on the bill.

Democrats wanted nothing to do with it on Tuesday.

“If there are irate parents who have been going down and screaming at their school board members over masks or the like, certainly I’m not a yes vote to send a message that we think that behavior is appropriate,” Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, said on the Senate floor.

Parent said the bill was unnecessary and duplicative and “seems to be driven by those sorts of folks who have been loud and ornery and disrespectful” at meetings where school board members were trying to navigate the pandemic.

The bill passed 32-20, with no Democrats in support.

Miller did find common ground with one political adversary, though. Every Republican who was present voted for the measure, including his primary election opponent, Jones.