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School board drops public comment restriction

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SMITHFIELD — Speakers are no longer forbidden from discussing Johnston County Public Schools staff members from the school board’s podium, but officials still urge those with complaints to follow the district’s established grievance process.

The Johnston County Board of Education approved a revised public comment policy during its Nov. 12 meeting. Interim Superintendent Jim Causby said the school board spent a great deal of time seeking legal advice on this policy and looking at what other school systems in North Carolina are doing with public comments at school board meetings.

“The new policy has less restrictions on public comment than the previous policy did. Signing up to speak is much simpler now with individuals only having to sign up prior to the meeting with no requirement that any statements be reviewed prior to presentation,” said Causby. “Also, while the policy requests that personnel or student issues be handled through official administrative avenues, the policy does not prohibit such comments.”

Previous rules for people addressing school board members have prompted criticism from attorneys, free speech advocates, parents and a nonprofit stakeholders’ group. Legal scholars say censoring comments about school system employees violates the First Amendment.

Causby said he feels the revised public comments policy meets the public school system’s constitutional obligations.

“Freedom of speech has limits and legal responsibilities,” said Causby. “State law requires boards of education to offer a time for public comment, but it allows the Board of Education to establish the rules and procedures for that to happen.”

Causby said school boards often have to serve in a judicial role in both student and staff situations and members have to be as non-prejudiced as possible in that role.

“Allowing public attacks on a staff member or student discipline matter can not only prejudice opinions but can result in legal action involving defamation of character claims and is unfair to anyone,” said Causby. “The revised does not specifically forbid such comments but strongly encourages speakers to follow formal district procedures.”

Area Assistant Superintendent David Pearce presented the policy for information during this month’s meeting, but Vice Chairwoman Peggy Smith said the policy review committee had worked on this for three months, the public had offered comments on the JCPS website and said the school board should take immediate action.

The new policy states, “Comments will be limited to matters related to the school system; for complaints or concerns about the performance of school personnel, student issues or any other confidential matters, the board suggests that the concern be presented to the school principal, the JCPS official responsible for the program or facility or to the superintendent.”

The policy also states, “Language that is threatening or profane should not be used and that Section C that was formerly in the policy has been deleted.”

Section C regarded complaints about the performance of school personnel, student issues or any other confidential matters. That section sought to prohibit such comments, prompting a likely showdown with free speech advocates.

“Section C was deleted because the revised policy addresses the contents from C in the opening paragraphs of the revised policy,” said Causby.

Those opening paragraphs urge parents to avoid discussing personnel and student issues and follow the grievance process instead, but it doesn’t expressly forbid speakers from raising such topics.

“I would move that we go ahead and implement this under exigent circumstances so that we can put this into effect in December if that would meet the approval of our attorney,” said Smith.

School board attorney Jimmy Lawrence agreed. Under Policy 1500, No. 6, exigent circumstances existed due to the policy being brought before the board for the third time and posted on the website for several months, allowing the board to fast-track its vote.

Smith made the motion to approve the policy, seconded by board member Terri Sessoms. The vote was unanimous. Board members Todd Sutton and Tracie Zukowski were absent due to work-related commitments.

“I just want to make a comment,” said board member Teresa Grant. “I appreciate the policy review committee going back to the drawing board and tweaking it a little bit more, and listening to people’s comments. Thank you so much for doing that.”

“I think it’s best for all concerned and appreciate your hard work on it,” said school board Chairman Mike Wooten.