Georgia House passes school board transparency bill

Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, with his wife Teresa, talks to journalists after qualifying to run for lieutenant governor during the second day of qualifying March 8, 2022, at the Georgia State Capitol. On Monday, March 28, 2022, the state House passed Senate Bill 588, his legislation to ensure school board meetings are open. Critics contend it is mostly redundant and symbolic, but proponents say it is a guarantee for parents' rights. (Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

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Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, with his wife Teresa, talks to journalists after qualifying to run for lieutenant governor during the second day of qualifying March 8, 2022, at the Georgia State Capitol. On Monday, March 28, 2022, the state House passed Senate Bill 588, his legislation to ensure school board meetings are open. Critics contend it is mostly redundant and symbolic, but proponents say it is a guarantee for parents' rights. (Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

The Georgia House of Representatives on Monday adopted legislation that proponents say requires more transparency from school boards but critics contend is mostly redundant.

Republicans say Senate Bill 588 gives parents more access to the people elected to oversee their schools. Democrats say the legislation adds little to existing open meetings requirements, though many voted for it.

The legislation passed 129-41. It now returns to the Senate for approval of changes made by the House.

It was introduced by Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller, who is running for lieutenant governor against a candidate backed by Donald Trump in the Republican primary election.

“Mr. Speaker, is it not true that this bill does not do anything that current law does not already require?” Rep. Sam Park, D-Lawrenceville, asked House Speaker David Ralston. Ralston, a Republican from Blue Ridge, said he didn’t think that was the case.

Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, a Milton Republican, then said the legislation would require that school boards schedule public comment periods and that they post meeting schedules and rules of conduct prominently on their websites.

Miller had said during prior legislative hearings that he introduced the bill because parents had been treated unfairly at board meetings, in some cases having been barred from attendance, because of their behavior or political views.

Two parents were arrested at a Gwinnett County school board meeting last November. And a rowdy school board meeting there last spring helped lead to one organization’s request for intervention by the U.S. Department of Justice.

In the fall, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland ordered the FBI to help address what he called a “disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence” against school boards and educators nationally. Miller said the agency had inappropriately referred to parents as terrorists.

Many of the things that Miller said his bill guarantees, such as a right to record meetings and to recoup attorney fees if improperly ejected from a meeting, already exist in law.

“It does not appear to me that this law changes anything,” Hillel Levin, a University of Georgia professor who specializes in education law, said in an email. “My instinct is that this is all about political signaling and politics rather than about anything practical or legal.”

The Republican-led General Assembly has pushed numerous educational bills that Democrats call unnecessary. They include legislation to limit discussions on race in K-12 Georgia classrooms and bills to guarantee access to curriculum that parents can already see by law.

Rep. Josh McLaurin, D-Sandy Springs, channeled political frustration in a tart exchange with Ralston.

“Mr. Speaker, is it not true that this election year the majority party would have been able to message distrust for public schools sufficiently with only one or two of the bills that you all passed, that you don’t need four or five of them?”

Ralston’s retort: “Good sound bite there, representative.”

Throughout the process, Republicans have tried to corner Democrats, indicating that a vote against such bills was tantamount to a vote against parents, a potential liability in the upcoming elections.