The public should be allowed to weigh in at school board meetings whether a topic is on the meeting’s agenda or not, three Sumner County Board of Education members argued recently.
According to School Board policy 1.404, individuals can only speak about an issue during a regular school board meeting if it’s on the board’s agenda. Regular meetings in which the board votes on items are held the third Tuesday of each month. Public comments are not allowed at all during study sessions which are held each first Tuesday of the month.
Three school board members said during a study session on Jan. 10 they would like to see the policy changed to allow for more freedom of expression.
School board members voted unanimously in 2016 to limit comments to agenda items only. Before that, individuals wanting to speak to the board about a K-12 education issue not on the meeting agenda could request to do so.
District 11 School Board member Andy Lacy requested that the item be placed on the study session agenda.
“Personally, I think it would be great for anybody no matter where you stand politically,” said Lacy. “Anything they want to address the board on they could address us.”
Lacy said he talked to a member of Shelby County’s school board during a Tennessee School Board Association training session who said that that board allowed 30 minutes total and around three minutes per speaker during their study sessions.
“Sometimes they would like to come here and be on the record and just be able to have your attention and sometimes when they’re sending emails to whomever, they don’t feel like they are actually being heard,” Lacy added. “I would love for us to have the opportunity to fix that.”
District 10 school board member Glen Gregory said the change was made in 2016 because the Sumner County Commission had the same rule.
The Sumner County Commission also limits speakers to agenda items while the cities of Hendersonville and Gallatin allow citizens to address lawmakers on any topic they choose.
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, board meetings are not the time or place to communicate with your constituents,” said District 8 board member Ted Wise.
Wise said the time that you communicate with constituents is when they call or email you at their convenience.
“They ask questions and I find the answers to the best of my ability,” he said.
“We are a government body that meets in public to carry out the government’s business,” Wise continued. “We communicate with our constituents when we are not in that government meeting – be it by phone, face-to-face, email, text, whatever it may be. Our meetings have a specific agenda, a specific purpose and a time set aside for that purpose, and I just think we need to stick with that.”
District 5 school board member Steven King said he would support changing the policy.
“Our goal should not be to make our meetings more efficient for us. It should be to make our meetings more efficient for them – for parents and citizens who want to interact with us, and I think that allowing for non-agenda items achieves that,” said King.
King noted that both the cities of Gallatin and Hendersonville allow citizens to speak on non-agenda items.
“When you control the agenda you can control free speech — and that is wholly unAmerican in my opinion,” he said.
King noted when the policy was changed in 2016, the board waived a second reading — meaning citizens had less time to weigh in on the change.
“I know it’s messy. Sometimes we’re going to hear things we don’t want to hear – including myself – but that is constitutional, representative government… I think there’s a way we can do this that citizens would appreciate,” King added.
District 9 school board member Patricia Brown, who voted with the majority in 2016 seemed to have changed her mind.
“There should be a frame of time in which people can speak on anything they want to speak on,” said Brown. “Because we may be missing out on something we hadn’t even considered.”
“I wouldn’t vote for it without a set time,” Brown added. “Because it could go on forever.”
Lacy again suggested allowing the open comments during the board’s monthly study session.
“There’s ways that we could make this work and give the people a voice,” he said. “I just think it would be great to give people a voice.”
Jeremy Johnson, assistant director of schools for communications and board relations, said he expects the item to be on the February study session agenda.
“We have asked Mr. Lacy how he wants to change the policy,” Johnson said.