CBS 12 | By Jay O’Brien | December 14, 2021
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (CBS12) — The Palm Beach County School Board is considering new proposed rules for school board meetings, aimed at reigning in the meetings, which have seen arrests, hundreds of hours of speakers, and shouting matches.
Tensions at board meetings began building because of the pandemic, during which some protested the district’s mask mandates and other COVID protocols. Even after the mandate was lifted, board meetings have continued to be a political battleground.
Dozens of speakers often approach the microphone during public comment or leave voicemails ahead of the meeting, sometimes leading to hours of in-person and prerecorded comments that push the meetings into the wee hours of the morning. One meeting, on a controversial diversity statement on the district’s website, lasted until after 1 a.m.
“Having that many speakers means we don’t get to the business of the school district sometimes for days,” said School Board Member Erica Whitfield in an interview with CBS12 News.
A proposal, drafted by the school district’s lawyers, aims to curtail public comment to one hour in meetings. It would also limit time spent on one topic to 30 minutes and may shorten the amount of time speakers are given depending on the number of people signed up to address the school board.
The suggested rule changes were unveiled in a meeting last week, but have not yet been voted on and are currently not on the agenda of any upcoming board meeting. But, officials indicated they could be approved in the next few months.
The district also suggested prohibiting what are called “non-agenda speakers” from addressing board members at all meetings except “special meetings.” Non-agenda speakers typically are not called until the end of the meeting and can discuss any topic for their allotted 3 minutes. Other attendees – called agenda speakers – are required to address a topic the board is planning to review that night.
Parents protesting masking and other COVID policies typically speak up during the agenda and non-agenda sections of meetings, often repeating similar talking points. Board members said that forces meetings to go longer.
However, non-agenda speakers sometimes also include people who are facing unknown, rarely considered issues. And board members recently pointed out that special meetings – where the new rules propose moving non-agenda speakers – are often held during business hours, which may discourage people who are working from attending and making their voices heard.
The proposal would also stop broadcasting public comments on the district’s live stream of the meetings.
“I have a huge problem with that,” said Board Member Karen Brill in the meeting last week, speaking about the rule that would stop broadcasting public comment.
Other board members expressed concerns that some of the new rules could discourage the public from attending board meetings and exercising their First Amendment rights.
Legally, the school board is required to solicit public input in meetings but is allowed to create guardrails for conduct during meetings.
“I’m hopeful this is not a forever situation,” said Whitfield, who – like other board members – added she welcomes input from parents and other constituents. “In the times we’re in right now, it has been very difficult to do the work of the district.”