The Forsyth County Board of Education discussed potential changes to public participation at its work session on Tuesday, April 12, in light of local and national debates surrounding media center materials in schools.
Superintendent Dr. Jeff Bearden brought the topic up for discussion, noting that he and the board have all listened to varied opinions from stakeholders on the issues surrounding media center materials for the past several months.
Many have come to regular board meetings since January to argue for the removal of “sexually explicit” material from schools in the county while others came to speak against book removals, saying the action could be harmful to students and the community.
Now, state legislators have made decisions on these national debates, passing legislation on media centers and book removal processes that, if signed by Gov. Brian Kemp, would go into effect in January.
With these updates in mind, Bearden asked if the BOE would like to make any changes to its current public participation processes.
The board’s current policy states that “the board may limit the time for public participation as well as the length of individual comments at their discretion.” This means the board can make changes to public participation practices without an outright policy change.
While each speaker is limited to three minutes at the podium, the BOE currently allows an unlimited number of speakers at its meetings.
“Because we are hearing many of the same comments from many of the same stakeholders, month after month after month, my question to the board tonight is do you want to consider limiting the amount of time allocated for public participation?” Bearden said.
After opening up the discussion to the board, several members agreed that time for public participation should not be shortened or allocated only to a certain number of speakers, including District 4 representative Darla Light, who suggested that it instead be moved to the very end of their regular meetings after executive session.
That way, she said their staff would be able to go home after a long day of work while the board could stay to listen to the public’s comments.
BOE Chairman Wes McCall said they should stick with their current process, pointing out that the public participation policy has worked for the board for many years and through other heated debates, including the one surrounding critical race theory, which began last year.
“I think the only difference before has been that we have, collectively as a board, come together and made a statement about what we thought was right for the community and what we were doing,” McCall said. “And we have not done that for the books.”
BOE Vice Chairwoman Kristin Morrissey said she agrees they need to give stakeholders an opportunity to speak with the board, but she also pointed out that they have had to delay other business and student and staff recognitions due to long public participation sessions.
“I think there has been too much that we’ve put on pause,” Morrissey said. “I think that’s a shame that we can’t celebrate some of the highlights our students are doing, so we need to find a way to get our students back and doing their presentations.”
In the meantime, Morrissey said she believes they need to reach out to the community and ask them to set an example for students visiting the board room and be respectful when speaking.
District 5 representative Lindsey Adams said she also does not believe they should limit speakers during public participation, but she pointed out that the polarizing viewpoints expressed during meetings could make some community members who might otherwise want to come talk to the board not feel welcomed.
“The climate of our board meetings, how they’ve been, I feel like it disenfranchises certain [members] of the public who might want to come, but they don’t want to be part of the climate,” Adams said.
BOE meetings in recent months have become heated, and McCall ordered the board room to be cleared during public participation after yelling broke out at their regular meeting in March.
“I don’t have a solution, but the way that the meetings have gone, I don’t think that’s reflective of the stellar school system that has been built over the years and I don’t think it’s fair to our students or teachers, which is our number one focus,” Adams said.
District 3 representative Tom Cleveland said the current public participation process has worked well for the board so far, but after hearing from many of the same community members every month, he said he would like to see new speakers prioritized.
Bearden agreed with this idea, suggesting that he and the board talk with their legal council about limiting how often individuals can speak at board meetings.
During school redistrictings, Bearden pointed out that they often ask communities or neighborhoods to collaborate and have one person speak to the board for the full group. He said this could also potentially be applied to public participation in the future.
“Oftentimes, while we’re hearing different speakers, the message is the same over and over and over again,” Bearden said. “It’s not that we don’t hear. We’re hearing the message. So if perhaps they could consolidate and have one or two speakers address their issues instead of 15 people, then …. we could get back to having students attend [the meetings].”
McCall and Light both said the board should take their time to discuss the issue and come to a decision on whether or not to change the public participation process. In the meantime, Bearden emphasized that they will be fully transparent in any discussions or decisions made around the topic.
The board did not come to a decision by the end of the work session Tuesday.
No changes will be made to public participation at the next regular meeting on Tuesday, April 19. If any changes are made for the regular meeting in May, Bearden said it will be announced next week.
For more information, visit the district’s website at www.forsyth.k12.ga.us.