Those wishing to speak at Chesterfield School Board meetings may soon have to adjust to a new setup.
The idea, which was considered by School Board members Tuesday but not voted on, came about after two residents protested from their seats when they nearly lost their chance to speak in April.
Instead of being able to comment on each action item, residents would be able to speak during two public comment periods.
The first period would come before action items and would apply only to those items on the agenda. Action items are those on which School Board members vote.
A second period, for non-agenda items, would come after School Board members have voted. Speakers would have three minutes to comment during these periods.
Schools spokesman Shawn Smith, who helped draft the policy change, said the change is a way to streamline public comments and could also give School Board members more time to process public comments before they vote.
Other changes included the stipulation that comments “must be germane to the services or policies of the school division.” New language also prohibits speakers from yielding their time to other speakers, as well as any speech that “promotes private business ventures, or that addresses pending litigation, or that campaigns for public office.”
School Board Chairman Javaid Siddiqi pitched the change April 25, six days after a contentious April 19 meeting in which the School Board decided not to take action on an item relating to the controversial supplemental retirement program.
Without a vote, the School Board no longer considered it an action item, so Siddiqi then attempted to move on. Brenda Stewart and Rodney Martin then shouted from their seats at that meeting, saying they had signed up in advance for what was published as an action item.
Siddiqi allowed Stewart and Martin to come up to the lectern to speak, as well as two other speakers who signed up in advance. On April 25, Siddiqi suggested changing the structure.
“We should be available and accessible. I don’t think that has to come with a comment for every action item. Some of the behaviors that were displayed (at the April 19 meeting) are not representative of our community,” Siddiqi said at the time.
Siddiqi then mentioned that a couple of people had signed up for every single action item and that some didn’t have a “whole lot to say because they hadn’t really dug into it.”
Siddiqi wasn’t present at Tuesday’s meeting.
Brenda Stewart criticized the change. Rather than three minutes for each action item, residents would now have to consolidate comments on action items into one three-minute speech, she said. She also felt it was another rollback on transparency by the School Board, which previously changed meeting structures this year.
Before making the proposal, the school system conducted a survey of other districts. Smith said 74 percent of the approximately 70 respondents have a rule that prohibits speakers from yielding time to others and that more than 70 percent of respondents took public comments before action items.
Megan Rhyne, the executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said public comment periods take many shapes and forms.
“In some ways, it matters more what people are used to and how much notice they have in changes to existing policy,” she said.
School Board members will likely vote on the change Sept. 12.