The Talladega City Board of Education this past week took an unprecedented action by voting to silence one of its own members, and, in doing so, demonstrated that it has allowed a personal rift to cloud its overall judgment.
And it’s time for a change.
Board member Mary McGhee has on multiple occasions levied charges against Talladega High Assistant Principal Chucky Miller, questioning how he can realistically and effectively work as basketball coach, athletic director and assistant principal at the high school. She also accused Miller of “enslaving our children” and not communicating with parents.
Miller responded by attending a recent meeting, bringing along his attorney, who issued an ultimatum to McGhee: Stop making defaming statements about Miller and issue an apology, or the school board will be sued.
McGhee made it clear she would not apologize.
During this past week’s meeting (where the primary order of business was to finalize the hiring of the new superintendent), the board, largely in an effort to diffuse the possibility of a lawsuit, passed a resolution prohibiting McGhee from making any comments during board meetings “concerning any matter where she names, identifies or by inference identifies an individual unless such comments are made in executive session.”
The resolution also says McGee may not “question the character or work performance of any individual making a presentation to the board unless such statements are made in executive session,” and that she shall “make no public statements in her capacity as a member of this board that exposes this board or the district to potential financial liability.”
The term “unprecedented” is often overused, but, in this case, there’s literally no precedent for the resolution passed by the board, and it appears to be a step too far in how it limits McGhee’s free speech, according to legal experts interviewed by The Daily Home's Chris Norwood.
Alabama Association of School Boards Executive Director Sally Smith released a statement Wednesday saying, “We’ve reviewed the substance of the board’s resolution. We are not aware of other boards attempting this type of action and have some concerns about this resolution. While we appreciate the desire to have orderly board meetings, board members must always respect the rights of fellow elected officials to speak and even disagree with the majority.”
Dennis Bailey, general counsel to the Alabama Press Association, said “... the language saying she can’t name or identify by inference an individual is way too broad.”
Indeed, courts have consistently ruled against prior restraint on free speech. As a duly elected member of the school board, McGhee’s ability to represent her district must not be stifled under any circumstances.
The board should take the very next opportunity to rescind the resolution silencing McGhee. Her right to participate in the democratic process far outweighs the board’s discomfort or fear of a possible lawsuit.
Additionally, McGhee must refrain from making unsubstantiated claims against school officials. If there’s proof beyond conjecture, document it and present it in the appropriate course of business.
Specifically, produce any players who have complaints about Miller’s performance as a coach. Produce parents who have complaints about Miller’s performance as a teacher. Produce Principal Darius Williams’ complaints about Miller’s performance as an assistant principal.
Hard, documented facts are much more effective than emotional outbursts. Unless you have documentation, assailing Miller’s character must cease.
And finally, Jake Montgomery should relinquish the board chairmanship.
Previously, the chairmanship rotated annually, but under the current administration, Montgomery has been the chairman since the 2015 election. He brought stability at a time when the board was in upheaval, but lately, he has allowed the rift between him and McGhee to cloud his judgment and, by extension, the judgment of the entire board.
He stepped up during a time of transition to give the board the leadership it needed. Now it’s time to step down … for the same reason.