By Joel Hall
After months of low attendance and discontent with the Board of Education's policy of separate, monthly, public participation meetings, the BOE is considering returning to the policy it had before the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) accreditation crisis.
This week, Julie Lewis, the school system's general counsel, introduced several proposed amendments to the public participation policy. The proposed changes would return public comment time to the board's regular, business meetings, rather than in a separately scheduled meeting on Thursdays after the board's work sessions.
If approved, the policy would also allow more time for each comment.
The current policy was put in place by the previous BOE, in reaction to the large number of concerned parents following SACS's announcement that it was considering stripping the school system of its accreditation. In March, thousands of angry parents crowded into the Clayton County Performing Arts Center (PAC) to express their thoughts to the board, something the board's policy didn't anticipate, according to Lewis.
"They had a meeting at a time where hundreds of people wanted to speak," said Lewis. "At the time, the board policy didn't accommodate that. They may have been trying to be more inclusive by amending the policy the way they did."
However, "the public participation meetings weren't really well-attended," said Lewis. "The people who were coming were basically the people who came to speak, and the school board staff."
Jessie Goree, BOE vice chairman, said parental anger following the school board's March meeting at the PAC was short-lived. She said since the board changed its public participation policy earlier this summer, the number of speakers at public participation meetings has been small.
"Because of that meeting [in March], they were thinking that there were so many people that would want to come, so [John Thompson, superintendent of Clayton County Schools] wanted to give them their own meeting," said Goree. "The parents were upset for a month, and then everything went back to normal."
Goree was among several board members this week who expressed a desire to return to the old policy. "I think when you have the meeting before action items, I think that is the best time for us to hear what our constituents have to say, not at the end of the month," said Goree. "Then it just becomes us having a meeting just to have a meeting."
School board member Mary Baker said "the old way worked fine. I understand why it was done," said Baker. "They thought it would give longer time and more opportunity [to speak], but the public didn't like it. The community felt it was more of an inconvenience. People have families and they don't want to come out an extra day."
One item of debate in the current policy is a rule requiring the public to call the board secretary by 4:30 p.m., prior to the public comment meeting to inform the board of the topics to be addressed. While school board member Trena Morris suggested moving the deadline to 12:30 p.m., other board members suggested doing away with the stipulation altogether.
"Why does the board need to know what we need to talk about," before the meeting? said Goree. "Parents have very limited input, so we shouldn't stifle them from being able to speak. If they get there by 6:45 p.m., we should hear them."
"I could see how if they know about it ahead of time, [the board] could have a staff person who could address that person," said Baker. However, "I found that as a parent who spoke several times, calling in would be just another extra step. I personally thought it worked when we just signed up."
Goree said that under the current policy, the board listens to the comments of individuals, but does not address individual concerns during the meeting. She believes immediate response is necessary to insure transparency with the public.
"In dealing with the SACS mandate ... it's an area in which we need to be more transparent," said Goree. "We need to have more discussion of what we are doing."
Lewis said the policy will be further reviewed by the board and brought before the public prior to being voted upon. She expects the board to have a new public participation policy before the end of the year.