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School district’s proposed comments policy still restricts topics

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SMITHFIELD­-A revised public comment policy which would still restrict topics addressed by speakers received its first reading at the Sept. 10 Johnston County Board of Education meetng.  The board may vote to approve the changes at its Oct. 8 meeting.

The revised policy was presented by Dr. David Pearce, administrative officer.

The school board has received criticim  for its current policy of requiring citizens wishing to speak to sign up 48 hours prior to the meeting. Under the new version, citizens may sign up at late as 2 p.m. on the day of the meeting.

"This exact sign up time could change depending on when the board meetings start," said Pearce.

People wishing to speak must furnish written information or provide the topic at  sign up. Complete manuscripts would no longer be required

Comments would be limited to matters relating to the school system.  Pearce sadi examples of suitable topics for presentation include policies, transportation or curriculum. 

"It's any school system topic that does not address performance of school personnel, student issues or any other confidential matters," said Pearce. 

Under the revised policy, complaints about school personnel, student issues or any other confidential matter must be submitted to the school system official responsible for the program or to the superintendent. 

Pearce said those not satisified with school district actions regarding personnel, student issues or confidential matters would still not be permitted to follow up with public comments at board meetings.

"They can then follow Board Policy 5240, 'Employee Grievance Policy' and Board Policy 4300, 'Student and Parent Grievances,'  said Pearce.

 Neither positive nor negative comments about personnel, student issues or confidential matters will be heard by the board.

"Since negative comments are not allowed positive will not be allowed either," said Pearce. "Our district also has an open form on the website to nominate employees of the month. Anyone can put in this nomination."

A public comments policy was originally approved by the school board on Oct. 9, 2001 and amended Feb. 10, 2009. 

Kim Winslow, a Clayton High School parent, said changing the time restrictions for public comments is an improvement. Winslow is one of the leaders of the Bring Bennett Back movement to reinstate former principal Bennett Jones.

"Changing the time restrictions for public comment requests certainly helps, especially for situations that are fluid and constantly changing," said Winslow. "The transfer announcement for Dr. Jones came out on Monday, August 12 and the school board meeting was the next day. 

"As a result, we had to wait a full month before speaking publicly at a school board meeting. It's definitely an improvement. As indicated in our public comments at the Sept. 10 meeting, we still feel there are other policies that need to be reviewed and amended as a checks and balance on the superintendent's office," said Winslow.

The revisions still fall short of the public comments policies at meetings of the board of commissioners, municipal councils and other school districts which permit impromptu comments by audience members.

"This policy allows anyone to sign up for public comment the day of the board meeting prior to the board meeting  by 2 p.m. in order to make agenda and time adjustments,"  said Pearce. "The revised policy ask  for the person speaking to furnish statements, written information or provide the topic at the time of sign up. This is to ensure board members understand the purpose of the public comment.

School board members didn't ask questions or make comments about the revised policy. School Board Chairman Mike Wooten thanked the policy committee for its hard work.