Divided school board approves controversial new public comment policy

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published August 8, 2023

GROSSE POINTE FARMS — Those wishing to comment during future Grosse Pointe Board of Education meetings might need to do some advance planning first.

A divided board voted 4-3 July 25 in favor of a new public comment policy. Board President Ahmed Ismail, Vice President Lisa Papas and members Sean Cotton and Virginia “Ginny” Jeup voted in favor of the change, while board members David Brumbaugh, Colleen Worden and Valarie St. John voted against it.

There will still be two public comment periods — one on action items, toward the beginning of the meeting and before the board votes on those items, and one on non-action items at the end of the meeting. However, the comment period for action items will now be limited to one hour to, as is now written into the policy, “assure that the actual Board business for that meeting is addressed in a timely manner.”

Members of the public wishing to comment during either period will need to fill out a form, but they now need to indicate whether they wish to address an action item or a non-action item. While members of the public can still pick up these forms and fill them out before the meeting, there will also now be a period during which speakers can sign up online to speak by filling out the form electronically; this online comment registration will only be available between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. on the day of the meeting.

Cotton said speaker order will be on a “first-come, first-served” basis. That could mean that if a large number of speakers want to address the board during the action item period, some speakers might not be able to do so.

According to the policy, the time period could be extended if the board votes in favor of that. Speakers who don’t have a chance to address the board during the action item period will be allowed to speak during the non-action item period, but as some board members noted, this would mean their comments would be coming after the board had already voted.

In addition, speakers will be allotted a single three-minute comment slot per meeting, meaning that they can only discuss an action item or non-action item but not both.

St. John asked if this meant people could only share one concern per meeting.

“I would say yes,” Cotton responded.

“For the normal course, you’re going to have a prior meeting to speak to an action item,” Cotton continued.

Those wishing to comment must fill out and submit their forms prior to the end of the superintendent’s report segment of the meeting. Speakers must fill the forms out themselves — they cannot fill out a form for someone else, according to the policy.

“I’m 100% opposed to this,” Worden said. “It tells me we don’t value (the public’s) comments.”

Grosse Pointe Park resident LaKeytria Felder also was against the revised policy.

“It appears that the board does not care about community input,” Felder said as she urged the board to vote against the revision. “It appears you want community engagement on your terms only.”

St. John said she was concerned the policy “limits people’s free speech rights.” She also said the limited time window to register online to make a comment “doesn’t seem fair to me,” as many residents are at work during that time and students are in class.

St. John was also worried that asking for the speaker’s first and last name could discourage students from taking part in public comment, as they are only required to give their first names, and it wasn’t clear from the form that they would still be able to not share their last names,

Cotton said he thought the online registration would help some people who want to speak but can’t get to the board meeting when it starts at 6:30 p.m., which is the time when people usually fill out forms to comment now.

“The board’s business is to listen,” Brumbaugh said. “That is the job of the board, to be the interface between the community and the school district. … We have a really engaged community, and that’s a strength.”

Grosse Pointe Park resident Terry Collins, who ran for the school board last year, said he estimated public comment on agenda items had run about an hour and 10 minutes during the July 25 meeting.

“I hope (the board) will still allow that,” Collins said.

Papas was in support of the change.

“There are many, many districts that have more restrictive (public comment) policies,” Papas said. “We want everyone to be heard … but you also have to weigh (that with) how the board is doing business.”

Papas cited a recent school board meeting that started at 6:30 p.m. and lasted until past 3 a.m. as an example of lengthy public comment extending the meeting into the wee hours.

“I think that having some parameters are needed and necessary,” Papas continued.

Worden said that the reason there were so many people speaking during public comment is because they weren’t happy with how things were going.

“Our own attorney said it’s not a good idea to do this. … I think it’s a terrible time to try to silence the public,” Worden said.

Worden also said she didn’t think limiting the public comment period for action agenda items was going to save them as much time as they thought it would, saying that what’s leading to long meetings isn’t the length of public comment, but the length of the agenda.

St. John said parents can reach out to board members by email, but she said some of her colleagues fail to respond to these emails.

“This is the only (other) avenue for the public” to communicate with the board, St. John said.

Maureen Krasner, of Grosse Pointe Farms, was among the residents who spoke in opposition to the new public comment policy.

“How important it is for you as a board to hear from us,” Krasner said, noting that the Pointes “are a community that cares about our education (system).”

“I urge you not to silence people but instead (engage) with people and give people time to speak,” Krasner continued.

Grosse Pointe Shores resident Christa Fegan said she was “very disappointed” the board was limiting public comment, saying this was taking away people’s rights.

The new policy is expected to be in place in time for the next regular board meeting, which at press time was slated to take place at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 22 at Brownell Middle School in Grosse Pointe Farms. To access the comment forms, go to the district’s website — gpschools.org — and scroll down to the School Board tab. Options under the School Board tab include one called Open Board Meeting Public Comment Forms; click on that to fill out the forms during the time window those forms can be completed, as the forms aren’t available at other times.