Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

School Board: Let the People Speak

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

School Board: Let the People Speak

Article excerpt

In its session last year, the Florida Legislature sought to close a huge hole in the state's open government fabric.

The people had no specific right provided the state Constitution or in state statutes to speak at meetings of public agencies.

So the Legislature passed a law that requires giving the people "a reasonable opportunity to be heard on a proposition before a board or commission."

It is based on the essential premise that citizens have a right to be involved in the creation of the laws in their state - not as a formality or an afterthought but during the early stages of those laws.

So when it comes to allowing public access at meetings, there are two ways of viewing it:

- Do you meet the narrowest interpretation of the law?

- Or do you follow the spirit of the law that encourages openness with the people who are being served? That is the position of the Times-Union's editorial board.

This newspaper has no special self-interest here. We pay employees to attend such meetings.

This is about the people. When parents, students and other stakeholders have to travel or take off work to attend a meeting of their government, they should be given a reasonable chance to be heard.

One example comes with a longtime tradition of the Duval County School Board. People are allowed to speak for three minutes at regular board meetings.

But board members do their heavy lifting during daytime workshops. And board policy forbids the public to speak at these workshops. It may be legal but it's not right.

A prime example came at last Friday's five-hour workshop. Board members were discussing student achievement and school naming policy, among other things.

Some members of the public wanted to speak about saving memorabilia at Forrest High School but were not allowed to do so. Even so, they stayed five hours.

During Superintendent Nikolai Vitti's presentation on the strategic plan, one man raised his hand and requested to ask a question about something Vitti mentioned about educational training for administrators. He was not allowed to speak.

What an insult. And how contrary to a spirit of transparency, customer service and openness that most board members want to foster.

At a Wednesday board workshop this subject came up in response to an editorial page request. There seemed to be a consensus favoring public comment in some form.

GENERALLY FAVORABLE

Board Member Jason Fischer favored public comment, saying that when he used to attend City Council committee meetings, he was frustrated at not being allowed to speak. Council rules usually allow chairmen the flexibility of allowing public comment at committee meetings.

Board Chairwoman Becki Couch mentioned limiting public comments to agenda items that will be coming up for a vote. …

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