School board changes public-comment rules

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In the wake of a July meeting that devolved into shouting among board and audience members, the Douglas County School Board changed the time at which it hears public comment, a move to which even those who typically support the board object.

Instead of having public comment in the middle of the meeting, the board scheduled it at the beginning of its Aug. 7 meeting. Board meetings typically start at 5 p.m., with a scheduled 9:30 p.m. adjournment. Depending on the agenda’s length, public comment typically has been set between about 7 and 9 p.m. It was slated for 5:40 p.m. on Aug. 7.

“I’ve heard from a number of people over the last few weeks. They feel like we need to tighten up public comment and make sure it is serving the purpose that is intended,” board president John Carson said in explaining the change. “We are going to begin our meetings with public comment, stick to a half an hour, and stick with the two-minute limit for individual speakers.”

Those who wish to speak are required to submit a request online by 3 p.m. on the day of a board meeting, he reminded the audience. If the 30-minute public comment period ends before all scheduled speakers comment, they may speak at the next meeting, Carson said.

“Public comment is a chance for people to express their views and share them with the board,” Carson said. “It is not designed to be a political rally forum. So, if we start having people cheering and behaving in that manner, we will move on to the next item on the agenda. We need to be respectful that people come here to be heard and we’re going to conduct ourselves – all of us – in a professional manner.”

Highlands Ranch resident John Ewing was among those who objected to the change. He asked instead for a three-minute, per-speaker limit, saying that is more typical for public meetings. Thirty minutes of public comment may not always be enough, he said.

“The half hour, I think, should be flexible,” he said. “If you’ve got to go to 3:15 (a.m.) to hear all the citizens, I think you should.”

The new time “makes it very difficult for those who work to get here in a timely fashion,” said Franceen Thompson, a member of the District Accountability Committee for the school district. “We live in the United States of America. We should be able to come to our board meetings, our town councils, our school boards, and say, this is what we think. We vote for you. We elect you. It’s your job to listen to us.”

Thompson suggested the board not interact with public speakers as it often has in the past. Those exchanges sometimes have escalated.

“I understand your job is difficult,” she said. “But at the same time, I think they deserve the opportunity to address you. Just listen to what they have to say and address it after all public comment is taken care of.

“I’m very pleased with the job you’re doing. I’m just not so thrilled with the new way public comment is going to be done.”

Board members did not respond to criticism about the change.

Controversies surrounding the district’s court-stalled voucher program and the expiration of its decades-long agreement with the teachers’ union have prompted both criticism and praise from speakers at board meetings.

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