Jul. 19—At its meeting Monday evening, the Harford Board of Education held a planned discussion on revisions to its policy on public participation. Before the discussion even began, however, the board wound up having to enforce one of the proposed policy changes, shutting down an inflammatory public speaker during her remarks.
The speaker, parent Jill Ferrara, who was participating online, started talking before the board had introduced her. The board stopped her and explained the rules, then introduced her.
Ferrara, a member of ReOpen Harford County, a parent group that protested the closing of schools during the pandemic, proceeded to accuse members of the Harford County Education Association, the local teacher's union, of harassing students, parents and community members at an event. Then, she verbally attacked the board and schools Superintendent Sean Bulson, calling them bullies.
"Superintendent Bulson, this board as well as the HCEA Teacher's Union ... all are the bullies," Ferrara said.
When Ferrara continued to violate the rules, the board ended the virtual call before her time was up.
"She did do personal and inflammatory remarks, so therefore she lost her right to speak," said Board Vice President Carol Mueller.
Later in the meeting, the board discussed the changes to the public comment section as well as public hearings, including ending a public speaker's time for speaking if the person is using inflammatory, derogatory speech or speaking untruths, as they did with Ferrara.
The policy entitled "22-0008-000 Public Participation at Board Open Meetings or Public Hearings," was adopted by the board at its Sept. 14, 1992, business meeting. The policy was most recently amended in 2005.
The policy is designed to establish guidelines for the conduct of official business in an open and public manner, keeping as a priority the focus of the business meeting and its agenda.
According to the policy, while the public has a right to attend open meetings, the board "may remove or cause removal of any person or persons from an open session upon a determination by the presiding officer of the public body that the person's behavior is disruptive to the session." The board said, in essence, that making an inflammatory statement about a Harford County Public School official or staff member would lead to the person losing their right to speak.
The revised policy, which is open for public input for the next 30 days before the board makes a decision at its August meeting, limits the public comments portion of each meeting to 45 minutes, and it will only allow additional time by groups recognized by the school system, said Kimberly Neal, general counsel for Harford County Public Schools. The board will be able to create special public hearings when there is a particular agenda item that will need more time for public comment, Neal said.
The disruptive conduct section of the policy was also revised to state people making comments cannot bring in demonstrative items for public safety reasons, Neal said.
"A person attending an open session of the Board of Education of Harford County may not engage in any conduct, including visual demonstrations such as the waving of placards, signs, or banners, that disrupts the session or that interferes with the right of members of the public to attend and to observe the session," the policy states.
The public will be able to request the opportunity to participate in public comments by emailing a designated address or they can call by noon the day of the meeting, Neal said.
The request for public comment will be put into a tracking system, and if there are more than 15 people wishing to comment, the board would grant priority to those speaking on agenda items. The board would randomly select who participates after those individuals with comments on agenda items speak, Neal said.
The board reserves the right to consider the amount of comments on one subject when making random selections of speakers in an effort to fairly allow comments on every topic, Neal said. Those selected for public comment will be notified by 2 p.m. on the meeting day by phone or email, Neal said.
Speakers will be provided the requirements for speaking which can be amended at any time by the board, Neal said. The policy allows the board to have public board hearing, Neal said.
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The meeting allows people to speak on one specific topic that most wanted to comment on outside of regular board meetings, Neal said. The changes for public hearing are identical to the public comments changes, Neal said.
The new policy will also keep the virtual public comment option, which was previously a temporary modification for the pandemic.
"It has been 17 years since this was last done," said Board President Rachel Gauthier. "Our world has changed dramatically in 17 years. So updating the policy is something we have been working on anyway in terms of updating all of our policies to be more current takes a ton of time."
Neal said small work groups were created to update the policy. The work groups examined best practices of other school systems in Maryland as well as other noneducational, board and council meeting best practices to ensure the creation of the most comprehensive guidelines given the revisions the pandemic has required all boards and councils to adopt, Neal said.