Muslims protest shift by the school board

January 09, 2007|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,sun reporter

Area Muslim leaders are protesting a change in the Baltimore County school board's policy on public comments at board meetings, saying that using a lottery system to determine who can address the panel stifles their criticism of education policies.

Leaders of the Baltimore-based American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee have pressed the school system to close schools on certain Muslim holidays as they do for Jewish observances, and have criticized the makeup of a committee formed to study school calendar issues. They have spoken frequently at board meetings in recent years - and are sometimes the only speakers during the public comment session.

Last week, they reiterated their call for the resignation of board member Joy Shillman, who, they say, has failed to pay attention to their remarks.

"That is not true, but I don't want to talk about it," Shillman said yesterday.

Under the new system, instituted in November to replace a first-come, first-served process, 10 names are drawn from a box. Each speaker is limited to three minutes at the end of the meeting and must avoid talking about matters that are subject to an appeals process, such as personnel issues.

The Muslim group's leaders maintain that the new system is directed at them.

"Their motivation is to muzzle the public speakers," Dr. Bash Pharoan, president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said yesterday. "We've had a large number of people at the meetings to speak on our issues since 2004. Many times we've filled the hallways and the meeting room."

Board President Donald L. Arnold defended the new system as the best way to ensure that people with various concerns have a chance to speak.

"Sometimes we would have speakers who were only on one topic, and people who wanted to speak on other topics couldn't talk because the 10 slots were taken," he said.

Neighboring school boards have various policies for public comment. Most, including Anne Arundel, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties, as well as Baltimore City, take public comment during an early segment of the meetings. Speakers are generally limited to three minutes each. The city also limits the number of speakers to 10 per meeting.

Pharoan said he and other ADC supporters arrive early to sign up for public comment. But he said that whenever he has noticed another group or individual has come in hopes of addressing the board, he always allowed those people to sign up first.

"There is really no problem here," Pharoan said. "There are occasions when people had no chance to speak. But we should not change a long-standing policy because someone came in at 7 p.m. and the slots were filled."

The board is scheduled to meet at 7:30 p.m. tonight.

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