Long Beach Island Board of Education Public Comment Policy Explained

Sep 26, 2018

The Long Beach Island Consolidated Board of Education, in a 30-minute meeting that can only be described as lackluster but efficient, offered no apology but did recognize its blunder in telling attendees last month they could not ask questions during public comment.

“Public comment – agenda items only,” board President James Donahower read. “Board policy #0167 encourages community participation in every meeting. However, the board requests the following from the public: state your name and address, direct all concerns to the president, limit speaking time to 5 minutes, and use of any pupil or staff member’s name is not permitted.”

Donahower’s reading of the policy wasn’t new to the Sept. 18 meeting. He reads the policy twice every meeting, one for agenda items only, which occurs at the beginning of the meeting. The second reading comes near the end of the meeting when members of the public can address the board on any matter.

At that time, no one from the public asked to be heard, and Donahower quickly moved onto the next agenda item. It wasn’t until later in the meeting that William Fenimore, who heads the policy committee, mentioned the subject.

“We reviewed the policy,” Fenimore acknowledged, “because we wanted to make sure we’re all on the same page.”

He reiterated what school board Vice President Collette Southwick had said last month: Members of the public may address questions and/or comments to the board president with the understanding that a complete answer may or may not be provided, depending on the topic and whether further research is needed.

“You may be asked for your email address so we can get the answer to you at a later time,” Fenimore said.

This is in accordance with guidelines from the New Jersey School Boards Association in its online resources for frequently asked questions. The association’s recommendations continue, saying, “The board uses the public comment period as an opportunity to listen to citizen concerns, but not to debate issues or enter into a question-and-answer session or a cross examination between the public and individual members.”

Fenimore also explained that the policy’s new number, after it was readopted with a slew of other policies at the board’s last meeting of 2017, is because the board changed companies.

“But the bylaws are the same,” he said, noting members of the public should remain at the podium until the discussion has run its course. “It eliminates the back and forth.”

The podium and microphone were set in the middle of the media center at the LBI Grade School for the Sept. 18 meeting so members of the public were looking directly at the board president.

In August, members of the public were told they would no longer be allowed to ask questions of the board during public comment. At the time, Donahower, in part, said he was enforcing the current policy regarding public comment as it was clearly written: comments, not questions. He blamed the shift on past issues with certain members of the public, he said, that “started fights” with district officials.

While the association acknowledges public education can be an emotional issue, the board should strive to maintain a certain level of decorum at the meeting, according to its online resources.

“Many meetings are recorded or televised, and students often attend or participate in the meetings,” the association continued. “As such, citizens are expected to maintain tone of courtesy and civility.”

— Gina G. Scala


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