By Curt Yeomans
The Clayton County Board of Education's public participation meetings -- which were intended to increase community input -- could be done away with because not enough residents are speaking at the monthly gatherings.
The public comment events were created earlier this year when the school board revised its participation policy. At the time, board members and school system officials said they wanted to offer the public more time to speak. Under the old structure, residents had two minutes to address the body during a 30-minute period in the middle of the monthly business meetings.
In the spring, the BOE changed its comments policy and established a separate day and time for public comments, in which residents were given three minutes, plus a pledge by the board to stay all night to listen to residents.
However, the sessions have been poorly attended, drawing small audiences and attracting about five speakers each.
"The board asked me to look at that [policy] and revise it," said Julie Lewis, the school system's general counsel on Monday. "It has not necessarily led to the increased amount of participation we were hoping for, and we may need to move public participation back to the business meetings."
The last time the school board revised the public participation policy, it caused an uproar from parents who were concerned their right to free speech would be infringed upon. However, the board members who approved the changes are no longer on it, and this will give an entirely new board an opportunity to address the issue.
The meetings were also regarded by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), in its Aug. 28 report on the school system, as a minus for the school board's efforts to become fully functional. "The board's adoption of a policy to hold a separate meeting dedicated to public comment further removes the public from the work of the board," the report concluded.
Board chairperson Alieka Anderson, and vice chairperson Jessie Goree asked Lewis to look into the public participation process because of concerns about the low level of community participation. Lewis is in the process of researching what other school systems do for public participation. She will also distribute surveys to the board members to gage their thoughts on the issue.
"It was the same people showing up over and over again," said Anderson. "It just makes more sense to put it back in a regular [business] meeting ... Why have a separate meeting for public comment when we can accommodate those people in a business meeting."
Goree, who used to speak during public comment sessions on a regular basis before joining the board, said the problem with the separate participation meeting was that it was outside the usual meeting schedule for the board. She was one of the parents who spoke out against separate public comment meetings when they were being proposed earlier this year.
"Most parents forget there are meetings on Thursdays," said the vice chairwoman. "They are used to the board meeting on Mondays."
Goree also said it did not matter to her if the board continued to allow people to speak for three minutes, or if it went back to two minutes. However, she would like to see interaction between the speakers and the board members.
"I feel like a board member should have an opportunity to respond to a stakeholder," said Goree. "I think in all the years I spoke to the board, I was only contacted by a board member [after a meeting] about my concerns on one occasion."