Proposed change to public comment policy at Newark board meetings sparks debate

Parents and advocates spoke out this week against a Newark school board proposal to limit the number of speakers during public time at its monthly meeting.

Opponents of the rule change, reported recently by Chalkbeat, said they feared the plan would limit public input.

Under New Jersey law, boards must allot time for public comments at all public meetings, but officials can set parameters around how that is done. Currently, the board devotes half an hour at each business meeting and caps the number of speakers at 10. During regular meetings, any number of people can sign up to speak during the 90-minute public comment period, but it’s rare that more than 30 sign up. 

The board is trying to decide whether to limit the number of people who sign up to comment at regular board meetings to 30, or keep the rule as it is. At the special meeting, some board members cited the length and the tone of public comment as reasons for wanting to limit it.

Board President Josephine Garcia manages the public participation portion of meetings, and much of it is largely left to her discretion. She usually holds speakers to the 3-minute maximum individual speaking time. “We are not looking to cut anyone out or cut anyone’s time,” she said.

Parents and residents are concerned about the proposed changes because the board has previously come under fire for threatening to ban members of the public who are deemed to violate the public participation rules during board meetings. Newarkers also argued that under the state’s 22-year control of the district, which ended in recent years, residents weren’t able to give meaningful input into school policy. Ronnie Kellam, the parent of a first grader at McKinley Elementary School, called previous board members’ comments about public participation “disrespectful.”

“I don’t care if it takes up until 12 a.m. the next day — you guys should hear our concerns,” Kellam said. “You guys should not try to limit parents’ voices, because that shows that you are not willing to bring the parents to the front table for decision-making.”

Some were unhappy that the board discussion took place at a special meeting. The special meeting was advertised and open to the public, but the only topic on the agenda was board policies.

NAACP President Deborah Smith-Gregory said she wished the proposal had been discussed at a regular or business meeting, which are more widely attended.

Garcia said she will elaborate on the proposed policy change at the regular board meeting at 6 p.m. Feb. 25 at Rafael Hernandez Elementary School.