School board introduces policy that would limit public comment during meetings

Columbia Public Schools
·5 min read

The Columbia Board of Education on Monday introduced a proposed policy that would limit public comments during school board meetings, and it's already receiving criticism.

The proposed policy sets a limit of 30 minutes for all public comment at each board meeting. The public comment at previous meetings has sometimes continued for an hour or more.

The policy also would limit the number of meetings at which a resident may speak to two consecutive meetings, requiring those who do to skip a meeting before speaking again. Some residents speak at nearly every meeting.

There was no vote, but the proposed policy may come up for a vote in September after the policy committee makes further adjustments.

A parliamentarian from the Missouri School Boards' Association late last year criticized the amount of public comment the school board allowed at meetings.

The proposed policy also establishes a procedure for residents to place an item on the school board agenda, which is a new state law, said Superintendent Brian Yearwood.

"Having unlimited public comment sucks up the time we have to talk about student achievement," said board President David Seamon.

Meetings have been consumed with public comment at some points, he said.

If the board is taking something away, it needs to replace it with another outlet, said board member Suzette Waters. She holds office hours, she said.

"We are going to alienate the public and erode confidence even if it appears that we're operating in the dark," Waters said.

Even if the intent of the policy isn't harmful, the impact may be, said board member Katherine Sasser. She said she had difficulty with the idea that commenters needed to pre-register and questioned the procedure for that.

"What we're first prioritizing is restricting public comment," Sasser said.

Public comment sometimes got ugly during COVID-19, said board member Blake Willoughby. It was especially bad when audience members would scoff and laugh at the comments of others and attack others in their comments.

"I don't think there's any mal-intent here" with the policy, Willoughby said.

Some meetings lasted several hours during COVID.

More: Protest, public comment over COVID-19 face masks mark Columbia school board meeting

Lara Wakefield, an advocate for students with disabilities, in a phone interview before the meeting said the school board is missing the point if it's proposing the policy under the guise of improving equity.

People need to be present at meetings to make vocal comments, and those who need public transportation or have disabilities may have difficulty getting to meetings or having time to sit through them, she said.

"They're actually making it more difficult for diverse people to speak," Wakefield said.

The limit on showing up at consecutive meetings also is a problem, Wakefield said. She is one of a few who comment at most meetings.

"I think, in general, they are struggling with the concept of constructive criticism," Wakefield said.

The administration doesn't follow up with people making public comment, she said.

"When that doesn't happen, people show up at every meeting to say the same thing because people are not responding to them," Wakefield said.

The proposed policy limits public comments to items on the agenda. The current policy allows for general public comment, which would not be allowed under the proposed policy.

"It's not only limited in time, but also limited in scope," Wakefield said.

The policy is in line with what other government entities follow, district spokeswoman Michelle Baumstark wrote in an email before Monday's meeting.

"The new proposed public comment policy is something the board and policy committee have been working on for many months," Baumstark wrote. "It is reflective of new laws passed by the state legislature last session and a revision of the process to align more with what other government entities do with the public comment portions of their meetings, including City Council and nearly all other school districts across Missouri."

She wrote that there are other ways of making public comment, including by email and in writing at meetings.

School board meetings aren't meant to be a town-hall style community meeting, she said.

"A board meeting is a meeting of the Board of Education to conduct its business that is held in public and governed by open meeting rules and laws of an elected body conducting public business," she wrote. "This differs from an interactive town hall or community meeting, which allows for discourse between all attendees. The two serve different purposes."

Chapter 100

The board also voted to authorize board member Chris Horn to vote in favor EquipmentShare's Chapter 100 incentive application when the Chapter 100 Review Board meets next.

The company plans a $120 million expansion to build a flagship corporate office and a technology development center. It would add 111 jobs in the first year and 555 jobs over five years.

It's seeking 75% property tax forgiveness over 10 years.

With the tax break, the school district would receive $2 million over the 10 years.

More: Columbia Board of Education prepared to take action on EquipmentShare expansion incentive

Board member Jeanne Snodgrass voted to abstain, saying after the meeting she felt uncertain about voting "yes" or "no."

"The school district is going to be getting a lot of extra money and it's also going to be losing a lot of money," Snodgrass said during the meeting.

The average salary at EquipmentShare is $72,000, but that's not the average salary of CPS teachers, said business owner Karen Weaver during public comment.

"The tax abatement is borne by our two most important resources," Weaver said. "That's our teachers and our children."

The Boone County Family Resources board and the Daniel Boone Regional Library board also will vote on the proposal this week. The Columbia City Council will consider it on Monday.

Roger McKinney is the education reporter for the Tribune. You can reach him at rmckinney@columbiatribune.com or 573-815-1719.

This article originally appeared on Columbia Daily Tribune: Proposed school board policy would limit public comment at meetings