Gwinnett school board to reconsider public comment policy

Credit: Alia Malik

Credit: Alia Malik

The board previously voted to limit meetings to 30 speakers

The Gwinnett County Board of Education is reconsidering the rules for public comments at its meetings.

Two members said change is necessary so the board can 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 at this month’s meeting. “We have 180,000 students, 200,000 parents and many, many active community members.”

Gwinnett is the state’s largest school district. Blair said hearing from more people will help the board serve the community.

Board Chair Tarece Johnson agreed, but other board members didn’t weigh in on the idea.

Last May, the board voted 3-2 to allow up to 30 people to speak during the public comments section of meetings. Some parents said the board was trying to silence them. Board members Steven Knudsen and Mary Kay Murphy voted against the measure.

Before the limit was established, some meetings had gone close to midnight because of the number of speakers. Last May’s meeting was paused as about 100 people refused to wear masks or leave the building.

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At this month’s board meeting, Blair suggested randomizing who gets to speak rather than using a first-come, first-served system.

The sign-up window is open for a month before a meeting, but the 30 slots are often filled within the first hour it’s open.

Blair said people should be able to sign up throughout the time between meetings, and then the district will randomly select 30 to speak. He said first-time speakers should get priority.

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Johnson suggested reserving slots for students and teachers. She also said people should be able to comment virtually. She asked staff members to improve outreach to people who don’t speak English as a first language so they feel encouraged to participate in meetings.

Johnson also asked about limiting comments to agenda topics. The district’s attorney said there isn’t much precedent for that, but it may be possible. He said other districts set a time for people to speak about the agenda and a time for general comments.

District staff said they would bring a proposal back to the board for its consideration.