The Carroll County Board of Education unanimously agreed to change its public meeting participation policy in November, limiting the number of speakers to 15 and mandating what topics those speakers were allowed to address, among other adjustments. On Monday, the board clarified the rules further, via updates released by the school system’s communications office.
The rules, updated with the help of legal counsel Edmund O’Meally, now state that the number of speakers at public school board meetings will be limited to 15, but if the number of requests to speak exceeds 15, the board president would be notified and the board could decide to allow more speakers, according to Carey Gaddis, communications officer for Carroll County Public Schools.
“We’ve always been involved with making sure that community members, parents and employees have a voice, and that they are heard by the board,” Gaddis said, “it’s just another way of doing it.”
Board members began examining the policy in the fall, saying that the previous policy, in which the public signed up to speak on the night of meetings via paper cards outside the board room, allowed for a circus-like atmosphere. Board members said they intended for the update to help streamline the public participation process.
After receiving in-person and emailed public comments complaining that the new policy’s wording would unfairly limit speakers and the topics they would want to address, the board delayed a vote on the measure at its September meeting and did so again in October. The new policy was ultimately adopted in November.
“I know there’s been a lot of discussion, how evil we are not to let people make public comment,” said then-Board of Education President Kenneth Kiler in November, “but I think we give more opportunities than most systems. We give more opportunity than the state board does.”
At the September meeting, nine of 10 speakers voiced concerns about the policy update, including public school parent Maureen Aversa, of Manchester, who said, “Transparency with this process may go a long way to build a bridge with members of the community.”
Felix Colon, of Westminster, also a parent of a Carroll County public school student, spoke at meetings in September and October, and said that while he understood the public speaker policy needed to be streamlined, changes to limit speakers and topics was not the way. Colon said not listening to every person who wants to speak gives the impression that the board has already made up its mind on an issue.
“Topics that bring out the public in large numbers necessarily need more voices to be heard,” Colon said at October’s monthly board meeting. “It is the controversial topics that need further discussion, debate, and greater and deeper consideration by board members.”
The new guidelines released on Monday state that a total of 15 slots will be available during public participation periods at the board’s public meetings. If more than 15 people sign up to speak, first priority will be given to those wishing to address an issue on the school board’s agenda for that meeting. Second priority goes to those addressing issues expected to be addressed at upcoming meetings, and third priority would go to those seeking to speak on other topics over which the board has general authority.
The guidelines also state that “when selecting speakers, every attempt will be made to present all viewpoints of an agenda item or topic.” In any case, those with a connection to the school system – such as a parent or employee – will be given priority over someone who does not.
“If we stick to the guidelines, then we’re consistent,” Gaddis said, “and that’s how we’ll we’ll choose.”
If fewer than 15 people sign up, all speakers will have a chance to speak in the order in which they signed up and may address the board for up to three minutes per speaker, according to the guidelines. The public can also submit testimony online.
“I think it’s important to consider that they have business to attend to at the board meeting,” Gaddis said, “so we have to find a way for them to be able to do that as well as listening to citizens, and I think this is a nice balance.”
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The school board also has the power to create more time for public participation under the new policy.
Board President Marsha Herbert said the board is not likely to make additional time to accommodate speakers who intend to make the same points as others heard at the meeting, which is often the case with controversial issues.
“I think [the new policy] is clean, clear and concise,” Herbert said in an interview.
Since implementing the policy update in November, only one person signed up to speak at December’s public meeting, one for January’s meeting and two for the Jan. 19 budget hearing.
Speakers may no longer sign up at the board meeting. Anyone may request to speak by filling out an online form at www.carrollk12.org or contacting the communications office at 410-751-3020 from 8 a.m. until 9 p.m. on the day before board meetings. A list of selected speakers will be released at noon on the day of the meeting.
The board will next meet on Feb. 1 for a fiscal 2024 budget hearing and work session, scheduled from 6 to 8 p.m. at 125 N. Court St. in Westminster. The request to speak form will open at 8 a.m., Jan 31.
Anyone may submit public comment to the board through the school system website at www.carrollk12.org or through the mail. Comments must be received by 1 p.m. on the day of the board meeting in order to be posted prior to the meeting.