No ‘jeering, hissing, booing.’ Here’s how a school board facing threats over masks could limit public comments.
South Florida Sun Sentinel | By Brooke Baitinger | December 16, 2021
School leaders in Palm Beach County are looking to limit public comment times, as a way to counter groups who have recently turned meetings into a stage for the culture war over wearing masks.
School Board attorneys drew up a proposal that would limit public comment at school board meetings after members complained that meetings have dragged on for hours as speakers lined up one after the other to protest mask wearing in schools — often repeating the same complaints as the person who spoke before them.
Public input sections of recent meetings have stretched to more than three and four hours, about the same amount of time entire meetings used to take.
On more than one occasion, frustrated speakers screamed threats at the school board members. To limit the combative turn, the school board’s proposal would bar their comments from being broadcast on television and ban them from criticizing individual board members.
School Board attorneys presented the proposed changes at a recent workshop. They suggested limiting speakers’ time based on the number of people who will speak. Attorneys also specifically banned “shouting, heckling, applauding, jeering, hissing, booing, engaging in speech that defames individuals or stymies or blocks meeting progress,” all of which constitute a disturbance, they said.
The recent proposal was met with mixed reviews. Some saw it as a reasonable tool for the school board to get back to business, rather than sitting through hours of repetitive complaints — which some members pointed out gives anti-maskers a platform and delays official school board business.
Others saw it as an attempt to shut out public input entirely.
“I get that we have people that are grandstanding and creating ruckus,” said board member Debra Robinson, who argued to keep broadcasting the meetings. “But we cannot hurt our primary purpose because of their bad behavior. I’m not trying to shut down criticism. I want constructive criticism. We need to get better. And how are we going to do that if we don’t listen? We’ll never get better if we don’t listen.”
According to the proposal, the purpose of the policy is to “provide for the efficient and orderly functioning of the business of the School Board,” as well as to protect the right of the majority to decide, the minority to be heard, and “to foster an atmosphere of civility and respect within the Board and those appearing before the Board.”
The policy has not been approved, but a majority of board members support it and are likely to approve it in upcoming months.
“We have real business to attend to,” School Board member Alexandria Ayala said. “We’ve seen a taste of what can happen when there aren’t guidelines in place. We’re just sitting here for hours not doing the business, and then we have to push back our business and we’re backed up on things that really need to get pushed through.”
During contentious meetings, speakers who made threats or refused to adhere to the current three-minute time constraint were kicked out of proceedings. Under the proposal, the school board would allow only one hour for people to comment on issues on that day’s agenda, and another 30 minutes for people to address other topics.
The new policy would also cut down on an individual speaker’s time based on the number of others signed up to speak. If more than 20 people sign up to speak, the board would limit everyone’s time to two minutes. More than 30, and the speakers would share an equal prorata share of one hour, the proposal states.
It also requires comments to be “educationally related” and bans “personal attacks” on board members.
“Speakers may not address Board members by name, and personal attacks against individual Board members, the Superintendent, or District staff are prohibited,” the proposal states.
School board meetings have been less contentious in Broward County, where individual speakers are limited to 15 minutes per meeting total on any variation of topics. The chair can also limit public comment of a single item to 30 minutes. Both time constraints were in effect before the pandemic.
However, in July Broward’s School Board canceled a meeting after an angry maskless crowd held a mask burning ceremony.