San Luis Coastal trustees to discuss public comment policy

acornejo@thetribunenews.comMarch 4, 2013 

Parents, educators and students spoke out about a proposal to close San Luis Obispo's Teach Elementary School at a San Luis Coastal district board meeting on Feb. 5.

KAYTLYN LESLIE — kleslie@thetribunenews.com

Prompted by recent criticism of its practices, San Luis Coastal trustees on Tuesday will discuss the way public comment is managed at board meetings.

Typically, speakers are given three minutes to talk about topics on the agenda. Members of the public are also given three minutes to speak on any topic at the beginning of the meeting.

However, a discretionary tool written into the school board bylaws allows the school board president to limit the discussion on any given topic to only 20 minutes.

That tool is used rarely as public comment often falls short of the limit.

School board President Walt Millar used that rule at a recent meeting about changes at Teach Elementary School that drew hundreds of heated participants, prompting outrage by some people who said he was stifling the public.

Kim Holmes, executive assistant to Superintendent Eric Prater, suggested that the board discuss the current policies to clarify them.

The school board will either reaffirm those policies Tuesday or suggest modifications, which would come back for a formal vote at a future meeting.

The existing policy allowing the board president to limit comments was created in 2001 when the district faced severe budget cuts and had to close three schools.

“There were rooms full of people and hours of testimony,” Holmes said. “Whenever there is a big issue like we have now … it is used as a way to try and manage the issue and also the other business on the agenda that the board has to conduct.”

Millar’s limit on public comment regarding the Teach Elementary issue at the board’s last meeting came after two other meetings allowing unlimited public comment on the topic. In all, 3.5 hours of public testimony were heard, said Holmes.

Holmes said that other school districts use the same guidelines at their meetings.

At Lucia Mar school board meetings, for example, an electronic timer is started when a speaker begins and buzzes overtime after three minutes.

The board president has been known to ask the speaker to wrap it up at buzzer time if needed, Lucia Mar district spokeswoman Amy Jacobs said. Those comments are typically under 20 minutes, she said.

If additional time for public comment is warranted, such as at special meetings, the board president announces it at the start of the meeting.

Reach AnnMarie Cornejo at 781-7939. Stay updated by following @a_cornejo on Twitter.

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