As part of its continued focus to provide resources to school board presidents, the New Jersey School Boards Association will be answering questions through its monthly Board President’s Corner column. Our next question is below. Submit your question and you may see it featured next time.
Question: What can the board do to make public comment sessions more productive while still allowing itself enough time to conduct other board business?
State law requires a public comment period at board meetings. Boards are allowed to establish reasonable restrictions on the time, place and manner of public comment. For instance, school boards typically set guidelines on the length of an individual’s comment (e.g., a certain amount of time per person), so no one person dominates the meeting. There is no required format for public comment; some boards have one public-comment period in the middle of the meeting, some have two public-comment sessions during a board meeting.
If a board expects more members of the public to come to the meeting than usual, one way to make the public comment session more productive is to move the meeting to a larger room if necessary, so that everyone can be comfortable and so that members of the public can move around more freely to speak. Having the school board’s attorney on hand to answer questions as necessary is always wise.
Another way to boost the productivity of the public comment session is to educate the public about meeting protocol at the outset of each meeting.
This includes informing them about matters such as the allotted time for public comment. For example, a board may decide to set aside 30 minutes for public comment, allowing each speaker three minutes to speak. The board must give each member of the public equal time to speak, regardless of whether the person is praising or criticizing the board.
The board president can also set the right tone right from the start, encouraging members of the public to be respectful of board members and each other. Posting a copy of the NJSBA’s “Guide to Board of Education Meetings in New Jersey” on your website may be helpful, as it tells members of the public what to expect. For instance, the guide notes, “Many meetings are recorded, streamed online, or televised, and students often attend or participate in meetings. As such, all should maintain a tone of respect and civility. Courteous behavior is extremely important during challenging times.”
The guide also notes, “Boards use the public comment period as an opportunity to listen to community concerns — not to debate issues or enter a question-and-answer session. Not all issues brought before a board will be resolved the same day.”
Another good strategy is for board members and school administrators to address controversial topics before the public comment session. This can help answer questions for the public and allay concerns that the public may have about a particular issue. For example, even if some members of the public are unhappy about something, the superintendent may want to explain that the district is complying with a mandate, federal or state law, or court rulings.
If a public comment session becomes overly heated or tempers flare, the board president has the discretion to call for a reasonable recess to allow tempers to cool. While this may extend the time of a meeting, it may be necessary if members of the public do not abide by the rules of the meeting. Note also that the board has authority to maintain the proper decorum during the meeting. Because the board has an obligation to conduct “public business,” the presiding officer, usually the board president, may under appropriate circumstances curtail an individual’s speech or call for a brief recess. However, because every person seeking to offer public comment has 1st Amendment rights, the board should adopt policy setting forth the circumstances in which a citizen’s rights to address the board may be curtailed. NJSBA would also strongly encourage the board to consult with the board attorney before taking action to limit or curtail comments by a member of the public. For example, First Amendment rights do not protect speech that is obscene, defamatory and/or that incites violence.
The consequences for infringing on a speaker’s rights can be dire. For example, in a 2010 New Jersey Supreme Court decision, Besler et al. v. West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District et al., a jury found that the board president silenced a student’s father during a public meeting for no reason other than the unpopular viewpoint he expressed, in violation of his free speech rights. That jury initially awarded the father $100,000 in damages due to that 1st Amendment violation. Fortunately for the board, that award was subsequently reduced, but the district had to engage in extended litigation to achieve the reduction.
If you have questions about navigating the public comment session, you may want to consult your board attorney. Likewise, your NJSBA field service representative may be able to help.