Gwinnett school board weighs limiting public comments during meetings

J. Alvin Wilbanks, superintendent of Gwinnett County Public Schools, listens to public comment during a school board meeting on July16, 2020. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
J. Alvin Wilbanks, superintendent of Gwinnett County Public Schools, listens to public comment during a school board meeting on July16, 2020. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

The Gwinnett County Board of Education is considering policy changes that would limit public comments during monthly board meetings.

The coronavirus pandemic, racial justice issues and a contentious school board election brought throngs of speakers in the past year to meetings where public comment had previously been sparse.

Last month, 63 people signed up for the second comment period. The list of January speakers stretched 79 names long and the meeting ended after midnight.

“I think this is, unfortunately, about controlling the narrative once again rather than responding to legitimate concerns that people in the community have,” said Brian Westlake, a social studies teacher at Berkmar High School and a leader of the Gwinnett County Association of Educators. He opposes the changes.

The school district currently allots half an hour for speakers to address the board before monthly business meetings. Toward the end of those meetings, there is another public comment session that can last for hours, depending on the number of speakers. The board usually gives commenters two or three minutes each.

The proposed policy changes would limit the second public comment period to half an hour. Speakers who have addressed the board twice in a row would be prohibited from doing so again for two months. The board chairperson would be allowed to limit the number of times a person can speak about the same topic and the number of people who can speak for or against a specific issue.

“Feedback from our constituents is very important,” said Jorge Gomez, executive director of administration and policy, when he presented the proposed changes last month to the school board. “As important as public input is, it is also important that you run an effective, orderly meeting.”

Gomez told the school board he based his recommendations on the practices of other large school districts around the country, including Cobb County and Atlanta Public Schools.

The Cobb school board limits public comment to 30 minutes at each work session and regular meeting. APS limits public comment to an hour during monthly business meetings and reserves the right to limit repetitive comments.

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Craig Lownes, the father of Gwinnett alumni and a frequent speaker before board meetings became popular, asked the board to increase the proposed comment time limit to 90 minutes during business meetings. He suggested adding a second 90-minute monthly meeting for the sole purpose of hearing more speakers.

“I’m amazed that this issue is being rushed to the table,” Lownes said. “It appears that it is a reaction to the number of people who decided that their voices need to be heard and the length of the meetings. It is good that so many people are passionate about the importance of the school system.”

Marlyn Tillman, executive director of the Gwinnett Parent Coalition to Dismantle the School to Prison Pipeline, submitted feedback asking the board to extend the proposed time limit to two hours.

“The proposed policy is effectively eliminating meaningful public participation,” she said. “It is egregious.”

During the recent work session, board members Tarece Johnson and Karen Watkins asked Gomez how to include residents who don’t speak English or have time to attend meetings or access to stream them online.

Chairman Everton Blair Jr. later told the AJC he’d like the board’s processes to ensure feedback “from a diverse, expanded group.”

“We should clarify the additional ways that constituents and community members can engage with us directly,” Blair said.

The board recently voted to table the proposed changes for review and public feedback until the March 18 meeting. Those who wish to comment on the proposal can email Gomez or MySchoolBoard@gcpsk12.org.

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