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Schools consider comment rule change

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SMITHFIELD­ — A revised public comment policy that would still restrict the topics speakers can address received its first reading at the Johnston County Board of Education’s Sept. 10 meeting. A vote to approve the new rules could come at the school board’s Oct. 8 meeting.

David Pearce, Johnston County Public Schools’ administrative officer, presented the revised policy.

The school board has fielded criticism for its current policy requiring speakers to sign up 48 hours prior to each meeting. The revision would allow people to register until 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.

The new policy requires speakers to furnish written information or describe the topic they plan to address when signing up. A full draft of prepared remarks would no longer be required.

Comments would be limited to matters relating to the school system. Pearce said 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 satisfied 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.

The school board would allow neither positive nor negative comments about district personnel.

“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.”

The school board originally approved a public comment policy on Oct. 9, 2001 and passed an amended version on Feb. 10, 2009.

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

If adopted, the new rules would still be more restrictive than Johnston County Board of Commissioners, city and town council and other area school board comment policies, which allow audience members to speak without registering in advance.

While the Johnston County Education Summit’s leader said changing the 48-hour signup rule is a step in the right direction, Robert O’Neal said he’s still concerned about the board stifling free speech.

“This means that the board can deny public comment on personnel and student issues as detected from the content or topic,” said O’Neal. “According to the N.C. General Statute 160A-168, the administration must not discuss personnel information, but that does not apply to the civil liberties of the citizens of Johnston County. Sometimes the citizens need to put a finger on the problem.

“The prior comment policy stifles free speech and gives the impression of intimidation. In that regard, nothing has changed,” said O’Neal. “Public comments from the summit and the Clayton High School community that highlighted disapproval of personnel changes by the superintendent are now forbidden by our interpretation of the new policy.”

O’Neal said former Superintendent Ross Renfrow’s retirement wouldn’t have happened if weren’t for the two groups’ public comments.

“The Summit has been appearing before the board denouncing marginalization of high school principals by relegating them to the central office for months,” said O’Neal. “Evidently, the administration picked on the wrong principal, which sparked outrage of the Clayton Town Council and citizens.”

O’Neal said the revised policy “struggles to respect free speech, true citizen input and the public’s right to have uninhibited access to the elected Board of Education.”

School boards lack the authority to prevent speakers from discussing staff members, according to Amanda Martin, general counsel for the North Carolina Press Association. The state personnel privacy law applies to elected officials and school employees, but not to the general public.

“Parents have no obligation under personnel statutes,” Martin said previously. “They do not have the authority, in my opinion, to censor what parents say. If they want to discuss what they have heard, they have some latitude to go into closed session.”

Pearce defended the proposed public comments policy.

“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 asks for the person speaking to furnish statements, written information or provide the topic at the time of signup. This is to ensure board members understand the purpose of the public comment.”

School board members didn’t ask questions or discuss the revised policy. School board Chairman Mike Wooten thanked the policy committee for its work.