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Pinellas School Board considers more limits on comments at public meetings

Residents have already complained about the board’s recent decision to stop livestreaming input on non-agenda items.
Sawyer Rosenheim, 10, of St. Petersburg stands at a podium while making a public comment during a regular meeting of the Pinellas County school board on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021. The board is considering changes to its public input policy.
Sawyer Rosenheim, 10, of St. Petersburg stands at a podium while making a public comment during a regular meeting of the Pinellas County school board on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021. The board is considering changes to its public input policy. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Mar. 21|Updated Mar. 21

People wanting to air their thoughts and concerns to the Pinellas County School Board soon could face more restrictive rules governing their comments.

But critics, who say the board is attempting to silence opposition, will have one more chance to talk members out of making the change.

When the board meets at 10 a.m. Tuesday, it will hold a public hearing before voting on proposed changes to its comment policy that emerged amid concerns that lengthy and often heated speeches about issues such as masks and classroom lessons were interfering with regular district business.

The recommendations would grant the board chairperson greater authority to cut off speakers making “harassing” comments, or interrupting the “expeditious or orderly process” of the meeting. It also would stress that speakers may not use their time at the lectern to advertise goods, services or political candidates, questions or parties.

One thing it does not address is the issue that has raised the most hackles: The board’s decision to stop livestreaming all input on items not on its agenda.

The administration took that action at the board’s direction after a fall workshop, as a procedure based on the policy that officials said did not require a vote.

Several people from across the political spectrum have blasted that approach, which is similar to how the Pasco County School Board handles public input, as improper manipulation of criticism. That message came through in the district’s superintendent search community survey, as well.

“The public has a right to know what the teachers are saying, and the parents,” said Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association president Nancy Velardi. “Otherwise, you just get to hear what is said on the dais, which is nonsense.”

Veteran board member Carol Cook, who proposed the policy and procedure changes, defended the approach. She argued that many families come to speak to the board about delicate issues and share children’s personal information without considering they might be aired on the internet.

“They don’t know that it’s being broadcast and it’s out there on the internet forever,” Cook said. “I don’t want that happening any more.”

The board is not looking to end public comment on items that are not up for a vote, she added. It’s just clarifying that the purpose is to ask the board for consideration, and not to use the district’s website as a platform for advancing an agenda, she said.

Board chairperson Eileen Long said she did not get the sense that the board would reject the policy changes, having offered no alterations to this point. She noted that several other boards around Florida, including Sarasota and Indian River counties, have amended their public comment rules in recent months, too.

“I think some of them (speakers) get so wild with their opinions. I think all of us feel we don’t want the negativity to take over,” Long said

Board members expected to get an earful on the policy and procedure during the public hearing.

“I think there could be discussion,” said board member Caprice Edmond, who opposed ending the streaming of comments.

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Because the policy does not specifically address streaming, though, she anticipated it would pass, barring a significant shift among the board majority.

The board also will take input on a proposed policy regarding parental rights, based on state law.

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