ANGOLA — A new law requiring public comment periods at school board meetings won’t have much of an impact on school districts in the four county region.
They have already given people the opportunity to express themselves. But some of the policies have been changed to be more in line with what the new law states.
The law took effect on July 1 and all public school board meetings must allow comments, whether it is a regular, special or emergency meeting.
The new law only applies to school boards. For all other public bodies, Indiana’s Open Door law specifically states that boards are not required to allow public comment unless the meeting is, for example, a public hearing that guarantees the opportunity to comment on a specific proposal.
For more than a year, in response to COVID-19 restrictions on what is taught in schools and appears on library shelves, several members of the public have spoken out at school board meetings, some in disruptive ways. . In some school districts in Indiana, public comment was not allowed, which led to unruly behavior and ultimately the public comment law.
Perhaps the northeast Indiana school districts that saw the most voiced concerns were East Noble and Fremont.
“Public participation at East Noble has always been part of our school board meetings. We value public feedback as we understand that there are a variety of perspectives from people who reside in our community,” Superintendent Teresa Gremaux said in an email.
The same goes for Fremont, which faced a lawsuit, which was ultimately dismissed, over the school’s COVID policy.
“The council welcomes opinions and questions from the community. Therefore, the agenda of each ordinary meeting leaves time for public expression. Public expressions will be placed immediately after the Pledge of Allegiance on the agenda. Public expression is limited to discussion of agenda items,” Superintendent Bill Stitt said in an email.
Perhaps the only significant change local councils are making is to limit comments to agenda items only, which is spelled out in the law.
“We allow 3 minutes per customer. They can now comment on the agenda items of the board meeting in question,” Hamilton Superintendent Anthony Cassel said in an email.
In Prairie Heights, nothing has changed at all, Superintendent Jeff Reed said.
“We’ve always allowed public comment at the start of our meetings, so no change there,” Reed said. We’ve never had a problem with time limits in our meetings, so we’re not looking to make any changes to that at this time.
East Noble has instituted limits in its policy, but this is not a change.
“The East Noble School Board is allowing public comment before any action items. Customers have the opportunity to comment for up to three minutes. The deadline for all public comments is 20 minutes; that will not change with the new law,” Gremaux said.
Here are some of the specifics set out in the new law, as explained by the Indiana School Boards Association:
• Public comments can be limited to agenda items only;
• Like the East Noble limit, time limit policies can be instituted. These could, indeed, potentially not allow some people to speak’
• Public comments must be allowed before the board votes on action. Comments on matters that are only subject to discussion by the Board of Directors should not be permitted;
• Speech cannot be limited to certain people, such as only taxpayers or parents of students;
• School boards are only permitted to hold meetings virtually during a public health emergency. During these virtual meetings, public comments are not required.
• People must be physically present at a meeting to provide feedback.
Across the United States, school board members and meetings have faced aggressive behavior, from interruptions at meetings to outright threats to the safety of officials by members of the public.
Some school districts have attempted to control their board meetings by limiting or prohibiting public comment. This was also an impetus towards the new law.