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2017-09-13 / Front Page

School Board changes public comment policy

By Rich Griset STAFF WRITER

In a 4-to-1 vote, the School Board voted Tuesday evening to change how public comments are handled at its monthly business meetings, drawing outrage from speakers.

Where members of the public previously had the opportunity to speak for three minutes on each action item before the School Board voted, they now must limit their comments to one three-minute comment period near the beginning of the meeting. Bermuda District School Board member Carrie Coyner was the lone dissenting vote.

The change comes after two citizens protested a decision by the School Board to strike an agenda item, initially nixing public comments for that agenda item, during a meeting in April. When School Board Chairman and Midlothian District representative Javaid Siddiqi read a statement saying that the board would take no action and attempted to move on to the next agenda item, local watchdogs Rodney Martin and Brenda Stewart shouted in protest.

Stewart and Martin argued that even though the board had taken no action on the agenda item – regarding the school system’s chronically underfunded supplemental retirement plan – they still had a right to speak. Siddiqi relented, and Stewart and Martin spoke about the SRP.

At a work session the following week, Siddiqi asked the board to consider consolidating public comments for all action items at the beginning of its business meetings. At the time, Siddiqi said that he didn’t “want to neutralize or cut folks out,” but proposed that the board could receive input from the community “without having a comment on every single action item.”

In April, School Board Chairman Javaid Siddiqi asked the board to consider consolidating public comments for all action items at the beginning of its business meetings. In April, School Board Chairman Javaid Siddiqi asked the board to consider consolidating public comments for all action items at the beginning of its business meetings. “I don’t know that we’re really getting a lot of insight that’s adding value to our decision making,” Siddiqi said.

At the board’s Aug. 8 business meeting, school system spokesman Shawn Smith presented the findings of a survey that Chesterfield County Public Schools conducted with the Virginia Association of School Superintendents regarding meetings. Smith said roughly 70 school systems responded, most of which were in agreement with the change.

“That option was supported by about 70 percent of those respondents from school districts across the state of Virginia,” Smith said.

Ahead of the vote Tuesday night, five citizens spoke in protest of the measure. Jenefer Hughes, a Midlothian resident and candidate for county commissioner of the revenue, spoke first. She began by thanking Superintendent James Lane for an excellent start to the school year for her children.

“I hope you enjoyed that message. However, as a School Board, I know that you also hear messages that are maybe not as positive,” she said. “That’s what the public comment period is for. It’s for citizens to come up and express their feelings and their concerns about the activities of the School Board, so I would encourage you to reconsider this change in policy.”

Stewart, a frequent critic of the School Board, criticized both the change and the report issued to justify it.

“Action items are the vehicle for spending the public’s money,” she said. “The April 19th agenda this year included eight action items. Based on the three-minute, no-tolerance time limit under the proposed policy, a citizen will have 22.5 seconds to address each action item.”

Ron Hayes criticized this past year’s change from holding two School Board business meetings a month to one. Business meetings, as opposed to work sessions, allow for public comment. Hayes argued that both changes are an effort to stifle public comment, and that he and others would ask for a recall of any board member who voted for the public comment item.

“[This measure] is to stifle criticism, deny one’s right to free speech, and it’s downright wrong,” Hayes said.

The School Board passed the measure without comment, and it took effect immediately. 

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