The Pinellas County School Board is considering changing when the public can weigh in with comments at board meetings.
Currently, those who want to speak about specific agenda items have up to three minutes each when the item comes up. Those who want to have their say on other issues have up to three minutes each at the end of the meeting.
Under the proposed changes, those two types of speakers will be moved to two different times.
The first group will have time — still three minutes each, for as long as it takes to get through them all — just before the board adopts the agenda.
The second will have time at the beginning of the meeting. And this is where things get a little confusing and, for those who fear the board is out to limit input, concerning.
According to the draft proposal — which the board voted 6-1 to initially approve last week — the comment period at the beginning of the meeting would be up to 30 minutes. If there were more than 10 speakers, the chairman could shorten each speaker's time unless overruled by the board.
Board member Janet Clark, who served on a board subcommittee that came up with the recommendations, said the intent of that change was to make things easier for people to express opinions — so they wouldn't have to wait potentially hours to speak.
"I really feel like we're expanding (input) more than limiting," Clark said. "The times that most people speak at the end of the meeting, we might have three or four speakers at the most. And they've been waiting for a long time … Why not let them do it at the beginning of the meeting and go on their merry way?"
As for limiting the speaking period to 30 minutes, she said that would not happen if there were lots of speakers.
"If we had 100 people coming to speak, we would not want to shut them down," Clark said. "The board chair has the option of expanding that time with the support of the board."
The draft does not explicitly say that, but "maybe we will have to get it written in there," Clark said. "I think it would be a good idea to clarify that for people."
The board is planning to discuss the issue at a workshop Tuesday. The second and final vote on the changes is scheduled for June 14.
Board member Linda Lerner, the lone dissenter last week, tried to postpone the first vote. But that bid failed 4-3, with Lerner joined on the losing end by Lew Williams and Terry Krassner.
Lerner worried that moving comment times would affect people who couldn't leave work early to attend night meetings, which begin at 5 p.m. The board alternates between morning and night meetings.
"The reason that we went to night meetings … was that people could not come during the day," Lerner said. "I believe this does limit public input."
Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873.