Question: We have a problem with access to school board members. By policy, they don’t talk with the press. They refer all interview requests to the superintendent’s office. During board meetings, they have set aside a time for public comment, but they don’t allow questions even then. You can say whatever you want, but you can’t query the board. They do not violate the Texas Public Information law in their meetings, but there’s no opportunity to find out what they are thinking about the votes they are taking. How can we get them to take questions from us or give us some interview time?
Answer:This is an interesting situation without an easy answer.
First, let me say that it is typical of most boards and commissions not to respond during public comment periods. The public is generally given a specific time to voice concerns, and most officials do not respond, or get into a debate, during this period. Typically the board president or leader will thank the speaker and sometimes they will indicate they are referring it to a staff member for consideration. So I wouldn't worry about that too much.
But having elected officials who refuse to comment on any public issue, and who refer those questions to someone who works for them, is very odd. As a journalist, you can't make them talk to you, but you can make it obvious to the general public that the board is refusing to discuss important issues. Is there a particular issue right now that you are writing about? I'd suggest you do an entire story on the fact that the elected officials refuse to discuss matters of interest to the community. You might also submit an open records request for any emails exchanged among the board and the staff on that topic. That would be one way to get their attention.
Are there any teacher groups or citizen groups that are complaining about the lack of communication from the board? Those would be important voices to include in the story, and would drive home for readers that this is not about a journalist getting his feelings hurt but a failure to communicate about matters of importance to the general public.
I would also recommend that every time you have a story, you should seek out comments and include a line in the story that the individual board members would not comment.