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What the community had to say about the school board’s updated public participation policy
Board meeting addresses public speakers, hears more debate about explicit books
Board of Education
The Board of Education addressed heard from residents about its public participation policy and explicit books at its Feb. 21, 2023 regular meeting. Photo courtesy of Forsyth County Schools

The Forsyth County Board of Education approved an update to its public participation policy at its regular meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 21, aligning with terms agreed to in a federal lawsuit.

The Mama Bears of Forsyth County, a group of local parents led by Cindy Martin and Alison Hair, filed the lawsuit last year after claiming portions of the Board’s public participation policy were unconstitutional.

The district has since agreed to a settlement that includes removing certain rules from its policy, including:

●     Visitors at meetings should “conduct themselves in a respectful manner” so as not to disrupt the Board’s business.

●     Every speaker should address the entire Board as a whole instead of individual members.

●     Speakers should keep their remarks “civil” and avoid the use of “obscene” or “profane” language.

●     “Loud and boisterous conduct or comments” by speakers at meetings are not allowed.

Aside from the removal of these rules, only minor edits were made to the policy. Despite this, the Mama Bears and other community members have continued to criticize language in the policy they have called “vague” or “subjective.”

Mike Valdes, board member for District 5, said the public’s feedback has not gone unnoticed.

“We received many dozens of bits of input and feedback, and we considered all of them,” Valdes said. “And I think we arrived at a consensus that serves the purpose of this meeting. I just want to thank the staff and all of my colleagues here for listening, and I know all of us answered many emails and took many phone calls. And a lot of work was put into this.”

The Board approved the updated policy unanimously.

“I hope the public realized that we appreciate their participation and that we can all have good dialogue and be civil,” Board of Education Chair Darla Light said.


Even after the policy was approved, some speakers during the night’s public participation section took to the podium to talk about the policy.

Mark Weiss, a former school board candidate who ran for the District 1 seat in 2018, pointed to a section of the policy stating participants speaking on topics not related to the meeting’s agenda must sign up to speak at least 24 hours in advance.

He said there should be no limit on when citizens can come in and speak to the Board at its once-per-month meetings, noting it is the only time constituents can talk in front of the Board with members’ “undivided attention.”

Weiss also criticized Superintendent Dr. Jeff Bearden for an internal discussion he had 11 months ago along with Chief Communications Officer Jennifer Caracciolo and board members about limiting public participation at their meetings.

Mark Weiss speaks at BOE meeting
Mark Weiss addressed board members during the Feb. 21, 2023 BOE regular meeting about why he objects to its public participation policy. Photo courtesy of Forsyth County Schools.

Caracciolo stated in an email to the FCN that the discussion was “in response to an incident that occurred during the public participation portion of a Board meeting.”

This internal discussion was revealed through emails the district provided as part of the discovery process for the federal lawsuit filed by the Mama Bears. The emails have since circulated on social media and in the community.

In one email dated March 24 last year, Bearden told Caracciolo and board members that some comments made during a recent meeting were personal attacks, a violation of the policy set in place at the time.

“We must stop the ‘playing to the audience, pep rally’ mentality,” Bearden wrote. “One way to do that is limiting the amount of time for public participation.”

He asked that board members consider limiting public participation to 15 minutes in total. In another email dated March 15 last year, Caracciolo also suggested limiting public participation to one hour and only allowing speakers to sign up to speak every other month “to provide the opportunity for others to be heard.”

“A lot has occurred since this communication was made 11 months ago, including the lawsuit which was settled by both parties,” Caracciolo told the FCN. “As such and with the policy being approved [Tuesday night], we as a district have moved forward from this issue.”

Cindy Martin at BOE meeting
Cindy Martin, chair of Mama Bears of Forsyth County, addressed members of the BOE and read a passage from an unnamed book during the regular meeting on Feb. 21, 2023. Photo courtesy of Forsyth County Schools

Book debate continues

Several other speakers took to the podium at the meeting to talk about Black History Month, the district’s former Diversity, Equity and Inclusion program and the continued debate around media center books.

Many specifically addressed the Mama Bears in their words to the board, noting that the group’s protest against the district and certain media center books they say contain explicit material has gone on too long.

“Dramatic readings at school board meetings aren’t going to achieve results no matter how many times you do it,” speaker Kathleen Kraynick said.

Another speaker, Pat Wall, called out “Mama Bear one” for not adding context behind the book passages she reads during board meetings. Martin, chair of the Mama Bears, does not share the titles of books she reads from because she said she doesn't want kids to seek them out to read for themselves.

Martin read a sexually explicit passage from another book Tuesday night that she did not give the title of. The characters mentioned in the passage, however, are featured in Margaret Atwood’s “Oryx and Crane,” the first book of the MaddAddam trilogy following protagonist Snowman as he struggles to survive in a world where the rest of humanity has been overwhelmed by a plague.

Martin continues to call for the removal of books like this from school libraries because she said they contain explicit content, but others have outwardly spoken for the removal of books they don’t personally agree with.

Another speaker, Jeff Tormey, told the Board he was specifically concerned about the availability of books featuring LGBTQ characters or themes.

“I’m old enough to remember when gays said they just wanted to come out of the closet and get married,” Tormey said. “Now, we have grown men dressing as women, calling themselves drag queens ….”

He asked the Board to “get rid of” books about LGBTQ relationships because it could result in further acceptance of the community.

Jeff Tormey speaks at BOE meeting
Jeff Tormey speaks against explicit books in school media centers during the BOE regular meeting on Feb. 21, 2023. Photo courtesy of Forsyth County Schools

Property tax exemption

Before the end of the meeting, the Board also voted to approve a resolution in support of a floating homestead exemption.

In the resolution, the board notes it supports a 5 percent cap on property tax growth in the county along with a sunset provision that would allow the district and local legislators to reevaluate the floating homestead exemption at the end of 2028.

Bearden and Larry Hammel, district CFO, discussed the potential exemption and cap at the Board’s last work session where members all agreed to send a resolution to the local legislative delegation.

The Board approved the resolution unanimously. From here, legislators can decide whether to incorporate the Board’s recommendations.