HomeNewsOPINION: Limits on public comments at JMCSS Board meetings should be revised

OPINION: Limits on public comments at JMCSS Board meetings should be revised

As people have questions for the Jackson-Madison County School Board and Superintendent Marlon King, it’s difficult to be able to ask those questions.

In the old days, being able to speak directly to the board was simple. Either at the beginning or end of a board meeting, there would be time for public comments.

Those comments from a specific person were limited to three minutes because for some reason, it’s easy for some people to go off the rails and start talking about something that has nothing to do with anything having to do with public education in Jackson and Madison County that month.

I remember one of the first board meetings I covered in 2018 during this public comment time, a person stood up and talked about being a substitute teacher in JMCSS and how difficult it was to be a substitute teacher here. That’s how she spent her first minute.

She spent her next two minutes talking about how she didn’t want to be addressed as “Miss [insert first name here].” And she kept talking about that for about 30 seconds more after then-board chairman Kevin Alexander let her know her time was up. So this woman spent 2.5 minutes speaking about how she prefers to be addressed when we were there to hear official discussion pertaining to education in JMCSS.

It’s not that way anymore. After King was hired as the district’s superintendent in 2020 and began to make changes to how things are run in the district, one of the things that was changed was taking out the openness of that public comment time.

There is now two official ways to be able to speak to the board with a third possible option as well.

The first official way is to e-mail the board’s executive committee, which consists of King and Board Chairman James “Pete” Johnson at least 10 working days before the next meeting asking to appear before the board and letting them know what you want to talk about and why.

The second official way is to sign up the day of the meeting once the meeting’s agenda has been published and ask to speak specifically about an item on the agenda.

The third option is to come before a committee after getting on the agenda for their meeting and be approved by the committee to recommend the board listen to you speak.

Because of scenarios like the one mentioned above, the adoption of the comment policies are very logical and understandable, but I do wonder if the ability for the board to speak as one entity to members of the community in an official capacity is a valuable piece of collateral damage of the policy.

Does the board need to hear for 2.5 minutes how a substitute teacher, or a fulltime teacher for that matter, prefers to be addressed? Of course not.

But if someone has a legitimate question about the district or a specific policy or some other matter within the district and appearing before the board is their preferred way to address the question, I think those people are being unnecessarily held back from that opportunity.

Because similar to how not everyone can get away from work during the day during early voting to vote before Election Day, not everyone can get to a place where they can sign up to speak before the board on that Thursday each month.

And not every legitimate conversation the board could have this month with a constituent will be directly regarding an agenda item.

And if King, Johnson and the rest of the board wants to limit the amount of time spent on irrelevant conversation during board meetings (which that is a definite positive to the entire list of changes that have been made to the board meeting process), then Johnson has a gavel and a stopwatch to use at his discretion when the speaker reaches the expired time.

To bring it to a specific real-world example. Former board member Bill Baxter has four questions he wants to ask the Board out loud and on the record of the minutes of official board meetings. I’ve seen the questions. We printed them in last week’s edition of The Post. It’s possible he couldn’t even get them all read within three minutes (they’re lengthy questions).

He’d probably get answers to his questions within 10 working days of the meeting, so at that point, he would no longer need to ask the questions. He could share those answers on his social media pages and with any other people he feels the need to do so.

I get the reasoning behind the policies, but I hope the board would discuss subtle tweaks to revisions to ensure no one is robbed of the opportunity to address elected officials, which is a key part of the First Amendment.

Brandon Shields is the managing editor of The Jackson Post. Contact him at brandon@jacksonpost.news. Follow him on Twitter @JSEditorBrandon or Instagram @Editorbrandon.

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