Gwinnett school board to consider limiting public comments at meetings

Kelly Willyard and Steven Gasper appear before the Gwinnett County Board of Education at the June 18 meeting. The school board is considering limiting public comment at meeting to a total of 90 minutes. ARLINDA SMITH BROADY/AJC
Kelly Willyard and Steven Gasper appear before the Gwinnett County Board of Education at the June 18 meeting. The school board is considering limiting public comment at meeting to a total of 90 minutes. ARLINDA SMITH BROADY/AJC

The Gwinnett County Board of Education is scheduled to vote next week on a revised proposal to limit the amount of time spent on public comment at meetings.

That’s because the long list of speakers occasionally pushed the meetings to last until 11 p.m. or later.

The new proposal would set a 90-minute maximum on the public comment portion of regular monthly board meetings. It would cap the total number of speakers at 30 with three minutes each or 45 with two minutes each.

“We’ve got to balance the needs of constituents with the need of running an effective, organized meeting,” Jorge Gomez, executive director of administration and policy, recent told the board.

The proposed change comes at a time when the board is hiring a new district superintendent. Recently, the school board voted 3-2 to end contract the contract of Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks nearly a year early.

Over the past year, parents, employees and community members have addressed the board in greater numbers, voicing criticisms about the district’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the need for racial justice and other matters.

Penny Poole, president of the Gwinnett chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the community needs to be heard, alluding to the busy period ahead as the school system transitions to post-pandemic education and the hiring of a new district superintendent.

“There is just so much happening,” Poole told the board recently. “There’s so much communication that needs to be had. ... Please let us keep our voices.”

The revised changes would eliminate the half-hour comment period before each school board meeting. People who address the board two months in a row would have to wait another two months before they can speak again.

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Speakers will be able to send written feedback and request translation services when they sign up to address the board, Gomez said.

He recommended the changes after reviewing about 50 emails that weighed in on limiting public comment.

Gomez in February proposed a 60-minute total limit on public comment at meetings, but revised the recommendation after a flood of written objections.

The school board voted unanimously to leave the new recommendations on the table until April 15 for more public input.

Wendy Lynch, a parent, told the board she and other parents were contacting state and federal lawmakers to argue that all constituents should be allowed to speak at school board meetings.

“Nobody wants to be here until 11 o’clock at night, “ Lynch said. “Not you as school board representatives, not us as parents, but the fact that we are here late, pleading our cases for our children and our schools, speaks volumes about how much we care.”

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