Gwinnett school board changes rules for public comments at meetings

Scores of audience members refused to wear masks or leave the Gwinnett County Board of Education meeting on May 20, 2021. The board opted to change its policy on public comments at this meeting. (Alia Malik / AJC)

Credit: Alia Malik

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Scores of audience members refused to wear masks or leave the Gwinnett County Board of Education meeting on May 20, 2021. The board opted to change its policy on public comments at this meeting. (Alia Malik / AJC)

Credit: Alia Malik

The main changes affect how speakers are selected

In a split vote, the Gwinnett County Board of Education recently adopted new rules for public comments at its meetings.

The change came after some board members in the Georgia’s largest school district said they wanted to hear from a wider variety of people.

“In a county of 1 million, we’re consistently hearing from the same 40 people,” board member Everton Blair said in January when the board began discussing additional changes to public comment policies. “We have 180,000 students, 200,000 parents and many, many active community members.”

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The measure passed 3-2. Board members Steve Knudsen and Mary Kay Murphy opposed the change.

The new policy goes into effect in July.

Under the existed policy, the window to sign up to speak at a meeting opens about a month in advance. Often, all 30 slots are filled within a few hours.

The new policy calls for speakers to be picked randomly if the number of people who sign up exceeds the number of slots. Those selected will be notified in advance.

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The new rules also allow for people to address the board without physically attending the meeting by requesting a call or other remote connection.

The structure of meetings will change as well. The board will split the 90 minutes for speakers into two segments. Thirty minutes will be given at the start of meetings for people to speak about agenda item. Another 60 minutes will be given toward the end for general comments. Speakers will still get three minutes to address the board.

The new procedure allows up to half the speaking slots to be reserved for students. Board Chair Tarece Johnson said she wanted to find ways to hear from more students in January.

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Knudsen, the board’s vice chair, suggested setting aside additional time for students to speak.

“If we truly do prioritize student voices, an extra 20 or 30 minutes at our monthly meetings is worth it,” he said. But the idea didn’t gain traction with other members.

In May of 2021, Knudsen and Murphy unsuccessfully opposed setting a limit on the number of speakers per meeting. Multiple meetings had lasted until nearly midnight because of lengthy public comment periods. Ultimately, the board adopted the 30-speaker limit by a 3-2 vote.