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Local residents now have more time to get on the public agenda for Muscogee County School Board meetings, and objections from several board members ditched another proposal that could have meant less time for the public to speak to the board.
During its monthly meeting Monday night, the nine-member board unanimously approved District 5 representative Laurie McRae’s proposed revision to the policy about public participation at board meetings.
Instead of the deadline being at the close of business the Friday before the meeting or work session, the deadline now is 2 p.m. the day of the meeting or work session. The board’s work sessions begin at 5 p.m., and the meetings begin at 6 p.m.
McRae, the board’s vice chairwoman, said when she proposed the policy revision last month that the board’s agenda usually isn’t posted on MCSD’s website by Friday, making it too late for folks to decide whether they want to speak to the board about one of the agenda items.
Monday night, board chairwoman Pat Hugley Green, the District 1 representative, proposed more revisions, but she relented after several board members expressed disagreement.
According to the proposed revisions, Green wanted the board to empower the chair to “establish a different time limit” for each speaker’s remarks, “depending on the number of people who wish to speak.” The policy currently limits each speaker to five minutes. She also wanted the board to permit the chair or the presiding officer to “limit the number of speakers and/or length of the public comment section” to 30 minutes.
“We have to have some way of controlling if people just show up in massive numbers to speak on the public agenda,” Green told her fellow board members. “We still have to take care of the people’s business. We still have to take care of our business. Currently, we average about 40 minutes for the public agenda.”
District 6 representative Mark Cantrell was the first board member to object. In the eight years he has been on the board, he said, the public agenda hasn’t taken that much time and it hasn’t been a problem.
“I just don’t agree with taking away the public’s five minutes at all,” he said, “even if we’ve got to be here an hour.”
Green replied, “I agree with you that the public should be heard, … but we do have to be mindful of the distinction between the public forum and our public business meeting.”
District 7 representative Cathy Williams, a former chairwoman of the board, said, “I don’t agree with this simply because I know I wouldn’t want to be in the position to pick and choose who gets to talk for how long.”
Board attorney Greg Ellington said that concept was addressed during the Georgia School Boards Association conference in December. Lawyers there disagreed about whether moving the public agenda to the end of the meeting would be legal, he said.
“I think I have an obligation to speak up to say, ‘Before y’all take action on a change like that I would need to make sure that it would be a permissible change,’” Ellington said.
Williams made a motion to table Green’s proposal until Ellington reports back to the board. After the motion passed, other board members voiced their concerns.
“We are public servants, and I don’t ever want the public to think we’re limiting what they’re coming to say to us,” said countywide representative Kia Chambers. “It does help to know and to hear other people’s perspective before we make a decision.”
Putting the public agenda at the end of the meeting, said District 4 representative Naomi Buckner, gives the perception that “you don’t want them there. It’s an insult.”
District 2 representative Mike Edmondson said allowing the chair to decide how much time public agenda speakers get “has an arbitrary feel to it.” Listening to the public, he said, “that’s why we’re elected.”
Superintendent David Lewis said people who want to speak to the board about an item being voted on that night won’t have the chance to influence the decision if the public agenda is moved to the end of the meeting.
Williams said Lewis brought up a good point and suggested to “bifurcate” the public agenda, allowing people who want to speak about an action item that night to address the board at the beginning of the meeting, then reserving time at the end of the meeting for the public to speak about other topics.
In other action Monday night, the board unanimously approved the following recommendations:
▪ The promotion of Gentian Elementary School assistant principal Danielle Ernst to principal of Gentian. She will replace Jessica Burnett who is being transferred to North Columbus Elementary School, where principal Gayla Childs is being transferred to Veterans Memorial Middle School to succeed Melanie Knight, who retired this month. Laverne Brown, who retired last year as principal of Georgetown Elementary School, is the temporary principal of Veterans through the end of this school year.
▪ The promotion of East Columbus Magnet Academy assistant principal Kevin Aviles to principal of Forrest Road Elementary School. He will replace Stephanie Dalton, who is being transferred to Blanchard Elementary School, where principal Dawn Grantham is retiring.
▪ The rezoning of the attendance areas for Aaron Cohn and Midland middle schools, which are 5 miles apart in northeast Columbus. Approximately 110 students currently assigned to Aaron Cohn will be reassigned to Midland, which is closer to their homes.
The enrollments at the schools will be more balanced after the rezoning. Aaron Cohn’s projected enrollment will decrease from 675 students to 565, and Midland’s projected enrollment will increase from 405 to 515.