It may be a public meeting, but some members of the public say Richmond County school board meetings haven't given the public an opportunity to speak.
Though following procedures set by the Richmond County Board of Education for public participation, some say they still aren't getting a chance to address the board and are being sent to school administrators.
"If that topic is something an administrator can handle, it goes that route first," school spokeswoman Mechelle Jordan said.
If an administrator can't address the issue, a person can then go before the board, she said.
A person can always call a board member, but must follow that procedure in order to address the full board during a meeting, Mrs. Jordan said.
Patricia Carr has tried twice to bring her concerns to the board during a public meeting, but each time she has been turned away, she said. She was directed to Superintendent Charles Larke instead.
Her frustration with the procedure showed the second time.
"If this is going to stop me from talking at the board meeting, then tell Dr. Larke not to even dial my number," Ms. Carr recalled saying the second time she was offered a meeting with the superintendent.
To address the board, a person must send a signed letter addressed to Dr. Larke or school board President Marion Barnes three days before a meeting stating the issue being brought to the board.
The person is then allowed three minutes to speak to the board during the meeting.
Sallie Thomas, the president of the Transport Workers Union of America Local 239, said she hand-delivered a letter to the school system's administrative offices on a Monday before a Thursday meeting and never heard from anyone. She showed up to the meeting but wasn't on the agenda to address the board.
That wasn't an isolated incident, Mrs. Thomas said. She's also been turned away from speaking during public meetings because she was told particular subjects are off limits. A fellow bus union officer was told he couldn't speak because she had already spoken about the same issue.
Board member Ken Echols said the procedure has been in place for years, but he's heard no complaints or problems with people not having their concerns addressed.
If their problems aren't resolved, Mr. Echols encouraged them to call board members individually.
"I think the process works," he said. "It's worked for years that way."
It's important for the process to have limits, Mr. Echols said. Without limits, public participation could go on and on. Also, the process should be restricted to members of the public and not employees of the school system.
Mrs. Jordan explained that while the procedures for public participation aren't written in policy, they are the practice of the board.
"However, it is policy that issues dealing with personnel not be discussed during a board meeting," she said. "This would have to be addressed in a private setting, not in a public forum."
Many school boards allow public participation, but it's not a right, said Phil Hartley, a legal council for the Georgia School Boards Association, an association of 180 school boards.
"Despite public perception, the public doesn't have a right to speak before a public body," Mr. Hartley said. "GSBA generally supports a policy that allows public participation, but doesn't have a model policy to recommend."
Many school boards have policies allowing for public participation, but those policies vary greatly, he said.
It's not unusual, Mr. Hartley said, for the board to require prior notice before a member of the public addresses the board. The point of such a requirement often is to make sure that the board is knowledgeable about the issue and that the proper people are at the meeting to address concerns.
Reach Greg Gelpi at (706) 828-3851 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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