Huntsville City Schools Board Meeting Citizen Comments Policy

 July 28, 2017, by Scott Seeley
Updated October 19, 2017

Good conversations start with listening  – listening is not hard. Sitting through hours-long board meetings to offer comments that you were required to submit in writing for approval 72 hours in advance – that’s hard – and that’s the policy Huntsville City School Board is considering amending. It’s a public comment policy that regardless of intent serves no purpose other than limiting public comment. Since its adoption citizens’ comments at board meetings are almost non-existent.

You can read the current public comment policies as posted on the HCS website here – the key points are listed below.

Citizens of Huntsville, AL (or annexed area), parents and guardians of a child enrolled in Huntsville City Schools, and Huntsville City Schools employees that desire to address the Board at a public meeting, will provide the Superintendent with written notice of their request to speak no later than seventy-two (72) hours prior to the work session. The reason for requesting to appear shall be included in full detail in the written request, and shall also contain the requester’s full name and residential street address.

The goal in providing advance notice and full details is to allow the Superintendent and BOE opportunity to be proactive in addressing an issue.

Written notice shall be submitted online through the Constituent Services Form, or mailed/delivered to ATTN: Superintendent; 200 White Street, Huntsville, AL 35801.

Citizens’ Comments are still allowed at regular board of education meetings

The policy governing Citizens’ Comments, regardless of intent, suppresses comments

Hsv competes against cities with school districts with open public comment rules

In the last several month’s District 4 Board Member Walker McGinnis and District 5 Board Member Pam Hill have both proposed changes to the citizen comment policy. Their proposals would have removed some of the obstacles to citizen comments. Both proposals were voted down. The most recent vote was at the October 19, 2017 Board of Education Meeting.

During the board work session on July 28th, board president Elisa Ferrell defended the current policy claiming the requirement to submit the request 72-hours in advance and in full detail allows the board and the superintendent to be more proactive in providing resolutions to problems and to questions prior to the board meeting. Ferrell referred to the policy as “a resolution policy not a listening policy.” Ferrell also claims Huntsville City Schools citizen comment policies are based on common practices.

Ferrell said she contacted all Alabama school board presidents to collect their policies regarding public comments at their meetings. Good idea … so let’s look at what the other districts are doing – but let’s look beyond Alexander City, Etowah County, Jackson County, Bibb County and the other Alabama school districts referenced as examples by Ferrell. Let’s look at districts and cities Huntsville city leaders consider comparable economically and culturally – cities we want to compete with.

A quick review of cities Huntsville’s city leaders likes to compare Huntsville to and compete with, show those cities’ public schools systems have far more open and welcoming citizen comment and public participation policies.

For each of the cities listed, I’ve linked the school board’s public and citizens’ comments policies and offered my layperson’s take on the policies.

Notable Neighboring Systems

Madison, Alabama City Schools  – Sign up on the night of the meeting.

Madison County Schools – Section 2.6.4 Public Speaking at Board Meetings – request to speak must be made 72 hours prior to the meeting.

Auburn City Schools  –  A perennial top system in the state, Auburn’s Board of Education Policy Manual indicates in section 2.5.4 that public participation is encouraged during meetings. You ask to be recognized and you speak.

List Leading Communities – Economic and High Tech Hubs

Business Facilities, a leading economic development publication, recently ranked Huntsville No. 6 for Economic Growth Potential – here are the public school districts in those communities that along with Huntsville made the top ten – they seem like good economic, educational and social models.

Salt Lake City, Utah – Sign up prior to the meeting, limited total time for comments, 3 minutes per speaker.

Mobile, Alabama – 5 minutes per speaker – unclear when one has to sign up.

Charleston, South Carolina – Citizens who wish to address the board may do so by signing up prior to the start of the Board meeting. Speakers are generally allotted 1 minute to address the Board.  A minute is not very long … however, the board members in this district receive no salary, but they do get $25 per meeting … remarkable for the state’s second largest system.

Shreveport, Louisiana  – Sign up prior to the meeting, 5 minutes per speaker.

Jersey City, New Jersey – Sign up by 4:00pm on day of the meeting, 5 minutes per speaker.

San Marcos, Texas – Sign up at the time of the meeting, 30 minutes allocated within the agenda for public comments.

Savannah, Georgia – Public comments are opened on all agenda items and this school system even has a procedure for public initiated issues and presentations to be placed on a board agenda.

Sugar Land, Texas – Sign up 15 minutes before the meeting.

Lincoln, Nebraska – Public comments on any agenda item – 5 minute limit per speaker which can be waived by the chair.

Top STEM Communities

San Jose, California – Sign up prior to the meeting. From posted agendas on their website … “Members of the public who wish to speak prior to the Board’s consideration of items on the posted closed session agenda must complete the Citizens Request to Speak Card and indicate the item number to be addressed. Each speaker is allocated a total of two (2) minutes to address the Board for a maximum of ten (10) minutes on each subject matter at the discretion of the Board President.

San Antonio, Texas – Sign up on the day of the meeting, 3 minutes for each speaker, up to 20 speakers. There is one hour allocated on the agenda for public comments, so time will be reallocated if needed.

Austin, Texas –   Sign up prior to the meeting with 3 minutes per speaker.

Charlottesville, Virginia –  Do click on this one and read this system’s public engagement policy, it’s indicative of a district committed to engaging their educated community. In Charlottesville, members of the public wishing to speak sign up prior to the meeting, after all those that signed up speak, the chair asks if anyone who did not sign up would like to speak. 3 minutes per speaker, written or supporting documents are made part of the record. Organized groups can be allocated 5 minutes by providing two days notice. Individuals or groups can ask for an item or issue to be added to the agenda.

Boulder, Colorado – Sign up prior to the meeting (or even during the first part of the meeting), speakers time is limited to 2 minutes. If the public comments (which are at the beginning of the agenda) go beyond an hour, they will continue at the end of the meeting.

Colorado Springs, Colorado – To read the full detail on their policy, click on a meeting, view the agenda and review one of the three Citizens’ Comment agenda items. Key points are the sign up is prior to start of the meeting. There are three 20-minute time periods designated for Citizens’ Comments:

1. During the Preliminaries section of the agenda, as the last item before the start of the Consent Items for the purpose of addressing other concerns that are not Action or Non-Action items on the agenda,
2. At the beginning of Action for the purpose of addressing action items only, and
3. At the beginning of Non-Action for the purpose of addressing Non-Action items only.

Except when otherwise specified by the Board President, comments by individual citizens in a given time period shall be limited to three minutes with a 30-second warning on the time limit.

Bethesda, Maryland – Call the morning of the meeting, if time allows one may sign up 15 minutes prior to the meeting. Each speaker is allocated 3 minutes.

Charlotte, North Carolina – Policy 8420, page 42 of the pdf – Chair calls on individual public members as the meeting progresses through the agenda.

Common Threads

When one reads these districts’ policies, one notes a few common threads:

  • Sign up at the meeting – advance notice not required
  • Time limits are 2 to 3 minutes
  • The total time allocated to Citizen Comments as an agenda item is often limited
  • Public input on agenda items

A Primer On Public Participation

For a good read on public participation and the ability of citizens to offer comments during school board meetings in Alabama school districts read Trisha Powell Crain’s article – “Are Board Meetings A Good Place To Seek Solutions?” – written a couple years ago, it’s still relevant and references school board events here in Madison County and Huntsville.

Ask Your Board Member To Listen

Given its challenges, Huntsville City Schools should do more to engage and encourage conversations with stakeholders. Shouldn’t we expect Huntsville City Schools to offer the same level of public engagement as the school districts in cities often listed along with Huntsville on the “Top Cities For…” and the “Best Of … ” lists promoted by Huntsville’s leadership?

Per the board’s bylaws, it requires four votes (at least a 2/3 vote)to change the policy – not the three votes typically necessary to carry a motion. Reach out to your board member and let them know your thoughts.