Howard County Board of Education members have agreed to modify the Listening Post portions of their twice-monthly meetings and continue to discuss ways to make them better.
Beginning with the meeting Sept. 21, the board will broaden the topics community members can bring up at Listening Post, which is a time set aside before each open board meeting for people to speak.
People will be able to speak about any item of concern, even if that item is on the meeting agenda.
For as many years as some board members can remember, speakers have been restricted from broaching topics slated to be discussed at that meeting.
Recently, board members began thinking that rule was too limiting.
"Everybody said they weren't thrilled with that restriction," said board Chairwoman Sandra H. French.
Board member Jane B. Schuchardt said some community members may not be aware of some issues until they read about them on a meeting agenda. And only the biggest issues warrant a public hearing.
"I agree that there are a lot of things that people would like to speak to that we make decisions about that they don't get a chance to speak to unless we have a hearing," Schuchardt said.
The caveat, French said - in addition to being prohibited from discussing individual personnel - is that speakers may not bring up subjects for which there has been or will be a public hearing.
The board is also leaning toward responding immediately to residents' comments or concerns, French said.
In the past, those who addressed the board during Listening Post were asked to leave written copies of their testimony, and a board or staff member attempted to reply by letter within a week or two.
"There's still a little disagreement there," she said.
"Some still feel there needs to be some kind of follow-up through a letter.
"Truthfully, I can't keep up with all that correspondence."
French said it is unofficially the job of the board's vice chairwoman to respond to Listening Post speakers by mail, even if someone responded to them at a board meeting.
Schuchardt, board vice chairwoman, said she would like to farm out the written responses to the district staff members most qualified to reply.
"Correspondence has just become overwhelming, and I personally have thought that it was best for these to come from the staff, the person who is responsible for whatever the person is asking," Schuchardt said.
"I hope that this will work out."
French stressed that these decisions, which were made informally at Thursday night's meeting, are a "rudimentary beginning."
She said the board has met with members of the county's PTA council and Citizens Advisory Committee to ask about what other changes, if any, should be made.
"I'm pleased that we're moving ahead," French said, "but we don't want to make decisions without input from the community."