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BOE approves separate, public-comment meetings

By Curt Yeomans

The residents of Clayton County will have their own meeting to give school board members a piece of their minds.

The Clayton County Board of Education approved a policy change to create a separate public-comment meeting by a 4-1 vote on Monday, during the board's monthly business meeting. Board member Yolanda Everett was the lone dissenting voice.

The board also unanimously approved a new "Civility Policy," which forbids board members and members of the public, from harassing each other on school system property.

Since it was proposed in May, the policy change has drawn the ire of some parents who feared the school system was making the changes to stifle the community's voice in the district's affairs. On Monday, one last parent voiced her opposition to the public-comment meeting.

"These policies are being put in place by a dysfunctional board," said Yolanda McCroy, a resident of the board's District 3, which encompasses portions of Riverdale and reaches to the county's western border. "They do not represent the wants and desires of the people."

The policy removes "Participation by Visitors," otherwise known as public comment, from the board's monthly business meetings. A new board meeting -- devoted solely to hearing the public's comments -- will be held on the Thursday following the board's work sessions, which are held on the last Monday of the month.

Speakers will have to call the board's secretary to sign up for participation in the meeting by 4:30 p.m., on the day of the meeting. The speakers will also have three minutes to speak, which is one minute longer than they currently receive in the business meetings.

Some early proposed changes were dropped, icluding requirements that: members of the public could only address issues already on the business meeting's agenda; could not repeat complaints addressed by someone else, and had to provide the school system with 10 copies of the remarks to be made by the speaker.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) cited in its Feb. 15 report on the school system a failure by the board to listen to, and communicate with, stakeholders, such as the parents of Clayton County students.

The revised public-comment policy received one last modification before going to the board on Monday. The modification came after a member of the public asked for two additional clauses to address lingering concerns.

Following a July 30 work session, Larry O'Keeffe, a resident of Rex, sent Julie Lewis, the school system's legal counsel, a request for a clause that mandated public participation had to be added to the agenda for the next business meeting, if there is not a quorum of at least five board members for the public-comment meeting.

"It is in the best interest of all, that the citizens be provided a reasonable method to address the Board of Education with their concerns," said O'Keeffe in his letter to Lewis, which he read to the board on Monday. "As this will not be a regular business meeting, I do have a concern about attendance. As no business will be conducted, the incentive for board members to attend will be solely as a sense of duty."

O'Keeffe also asked board members to consider responding to public comment during the new meeting. Lewis compromised by adding a clause which lets the board's chairperson respond to comments. The chairperson can also direct speakers to staff members for assistance.

"When people make a positive, proactive effort, we can work with that," Lewis said.