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SMITHFIELD — The Johnston County Board of Education tabled a vote on its new public comment policy last week as it invites community members to weigh in.
The current rules for people addressing school board members have prompted criticism from attorneys, free speech advocates, parents and a nonprofit stakeholders’ group. Speakers are required to submit a draft of their comments 48 hours before each regularly scheduled meeting in order to receive time at the podium.
A proposed new policy, first presented at the Sept. 12 school board meeting, would allow speakers to sign up as late as 2 p.m. on the day of the meeting. Full transcripts of prepared remarks would no longer be required. Speakers would be asked to furnish statements or information relating to the topic they plan to address.
However, the revised policy would expand restrictions on the content of speakers’ remarks. Comments would be limited to matters relating to the school system and people would be forbidden from discussing Johnston County Schools personnel, student issues or matters the school board deems confidential.
School board members would hear neither positive nor negative comments about district employees. Under the proposed policy, complaints about personnel or student issues must be made to the school system official responsible for the program or facility or to the superintendent.
Legal scholars say censoring comments about school system employees violates the First Amendment.
School board member Terri Sessoms made a motion to table a vote on the policy revision until the Nov. 12 meeting.
“I move that given the concerns that we’ve received that Policy 1250, the proposed changes, I move that this item be tabled for further study until the Nov. 12 meeting,” she said. Todd Sutton seconded the motion.
Vice Chairwoman Peggy Smith is asking stakeholders to review the proposed policy and offer feedback on the Johnston County Public Schools website, www.johnston.k12.nc.us, review the proposed policy and offer feedback.
“We’ve been considering this policy for about three months,” said Smith. “Every time we think we got it right, someone else comes up with a better idea. So we want to hear from you and make sure that when we do it, we do it right.”
The motion to delay the vote passed unanimously.
To make the opportunity for public comments more convenient, Interim Superintendent Jim Causby suggested adjusting the board’s meeting schedule.
“I would suggest that we look at starting next month, having our closed session later, at 3 or 4, and starting our regular meeting an hour after that,” And we could finish up with public comments, whether that’s at the first of the meeting or the last of the meeting. There’s an advantage to having it first.”
“We’ve all talked about it, we’ve had comments from our constituents that they would like for us to start a little later so they would have the opportunity to not have to rush from their schools or whatever the case may be,” said Sutton. “ I would love for us to consider having our closed sessions at 4 p.m. with an open session at 5 p.m.. It would benefit a whole lot more people and we should even look at public comments being first.”
“I believe that if we started our closed session at 4 and moved into open session at 5, it would give the public plenty of time, especially our employees, to attend their board meeting,” said Sessoms. In the spirit of transparency, anything we can do to assist that, I’m all for it.”
“I think 5 would also be a good opener with public comment. I think it’s important to hear before we make decisions and if we have public comment at the beginning of the meeting then we’re not playing catch-up so they’re not speaking about something we’ve already voted on,” said Smith. “ So, I like that and 5 seems reasonable to me and I would like to hear from the public what they think about that.
“As I said in the earlier session, it is online and we welcome comments about our public comments policy, so that’s different from the starting and stop time, but that gives us input about how to structure our public comments. Your comments are very, very welcome,” said Smith.
School board Chairman Mike Wooten instructed the policy committee to address the scheduling issue.
“I think all those comments are very good,” said Causby. ‘I’d say let the policy committee look at it and stay with what we’re doing now for another month and look at possible adjustments for Dec. 10.”