Pasco School Board to discuss public commenting rules

Members want to ensure people with ‘imminent’ concerns have a chance to be heard.
The Pasco County School Board holds a meeting in the River Ridge High School media center on Jan. 15, 2019. Jeffrey S. Solochek | Times
The Pasco County School Board holds a meeting in the River Ridge High School media center on Jan. 15, 2019. Jeffrey S. Solochek | Times
Published Jan. 29, 2019

Forty-four people signed up to speak the last time the Pasco County School Board held a meeting.

Most came to comment on transgender student rights, an item that has not been on any board agenda and is not scheduled to appear any time soon. A smaller group wanted to talk about proposed school closures, a recommendation the board is expected to vote upon in March.

The district’s current procedure on public commenting amounts essentially to first come, first served, though. And that resulted Jan. 19 in the parents with concerns about the fate of their schools being drowned out, with many leaving because of babysitting or other matters before ever being heard — even after the board extended its time nearly two hours to accommodate all speakers.

That scenario has prompted board members to call for a closer look at the way they handle input from the community during meetings.

“We definitely want to hear about issues that are imminent,” board chairwoman Alison Crumbley said Tuesday, adding that she is looking at options to discuss with her colleagues at their Feb. 5 upcoming session.

Dennis Alfonso, the board’s attorney, said the board faces a few absolutes. Its policy provides for an hour of public comment at all meetings. State law requires boards to hear from the public before voting on items. Plus, he added, good government as a practical matter demands listening to the people.

“There are a lot of variables," Alfonso said.

And a variety of approaches.

The Hernando County School Board, for instance, splits its comment time into a section for agenda items and a section for general observations. The Volusia County School Board is contemplating reducing the amount of time for non-agenda items.

The Florida Board of Education tells audience members they can speak on agenda items only, with other matters best addressed outside the business meeting. The Florida Legislature generally sets a time certain for its meetings, and takes public comment to the extent that time is available.

Alfonso said he would advise the board to tread lightly on any model that might face accusations of censorship.

“I would err on the side of allowing over disallowing” comments, he said.

But the ideas of strict time limitations, or allocating time differently between items on the agenda and general issues, could be more defensible, he suggested.

Crumbley made clear that she does not want to silence any point of view on any topic. But she also aims to ensure that people addressing subjects that are facing a vote get will be heard. One thing she might be able to do on her own is group the speakers according to the matters they indicate on their sign-up cards.

But Crumbley said she does not intend to act unilaterally.

“It obviously is aboard discussion,” she said. “We will be discussing it on the 5th.”