School Board revises policy on public comment
Published 6:57 pm Tuesday, November 14, 2023
With the much debated Ordinance 23/24-14 approved, it was business as usual for the Suffolk School Board. During their Thursday, Nov. 9 School Board meeting, board members moved on to voting on various ordinances labeled under Unfinished Business and New Business, which included Suffolk School Board policies amendments and a resolution for an auditorium renovation.
For Unfinished Business, board members observed Ordinance 23/24-22 focusing on “Late Appearances Defined; Notice Requirement.” The ordinance reads that Suffolk community residents who want to express their view as under late appearances “shall have the opportunity to speak on matters pertaining to services, policies and affairs of the Suffolk Public Schools, and shall be permitted five minutes for the purpose of presenting their views” and that they “shall complete the online Request to Speak form and forward to the Clerk of the School Board by no later than noon on the day of the regular School Board meeting. Once allotted time has expired, the speaker shall be seated, but may submit in writing any remaining comments to the Clerk of the School Board.” School Board Member Dawn Marie Brittingham expressed her opposition to the ordinance.
“I struggle with this policy because we are now infringing upon people’s First Amendment rights. We’re making decisions about who can and cannot come and speak in this public hearing,” Brittingham said. “I know that attorney [Wendell] Waller has said to us that it is a limited forum, I’m not in [agreement] with that. I don’t believe that we should be hindering who can come and speak in front of the board.”
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The ordinance was approved with a vote of 4 to 3, with Board Members Brittingham, Kimberly Slingluff and Vice Chair Heather Howell voting in opposition to the ordinance.
Ordinance 23/24-23 was also voted on, which focused on “Public Speakers Before the School Board.” The ordinance amendment reads that Suffolk community members must adhere to rules speaking to the board, including “Confine their comments to matters germane to the business of the School Board of the City of Suffolk” and “Comply with the time limit for public comment as set by the Board, which can be up to five minutes unless the Board through the exercise of its discretion decides to allow less than five minutes for public comment.” Brittingham again expressed her opposition to the changes.
“Again, I believe we are infringing on people’s First Amendment rights. I don’t agree with the preamble that we put forth before commentary time,” she said. “I think it’s wrong, and I think as board members, we need just to suck it up, buttercup. People are going to come and talk to us and tell us how they feel about things, and I don’t think that we should limit what they say. Yes, we should have to come and speak and not cuss at us, but I don’t think we should be defining what they can and can’t do during that time.”
Board Member Dr. Judith Brooks-Buck expressed her thoughts on the changes.
“In my opinion, this is a business meeting. And it’s a business meeting that should be conducted with some sense of civility in order to accomplish the business of the board. At some point, it has gotten to a point where it’s comedic, and it should not be,” Brooks-Buck said. “In order to accomplish that business, we need to conduct ourselves in a certain manner, and that has not been the case on some occasions. We can sit here until after midnight and perform in ways that are not conducive to conducting the business of the board … And these are minimal standards for any meeting. In this same chamber, these kind of standards are held on Wednesday nights without complaint. So I don’t know why on Thursday nights something happens, and it has to change.”
The ordinance was approved with a vote of 6 to 1, with Brittingham being in opposition.