NEW HANOVER COUNTY – The New Hanover County Schools Board of Education decided to stop its call-in option for public comment this month despite Covid-19 still deterring people from attending meetings in person.
The March 2 regular meeting will be one of the first in close to a year that people aren’t able to record a message over the phone to be played for the board. Instead, community members will have to show up in person to make sure their comments are heard.
“We receive hundreds of emails a week, and so we are receiving public comments constantly,” chairperson Stefanie Adams said. “And for those that come to a meeting and want to share their thoughts in person, I think that’s wonderful and I appreciate it. We’re not limiting anyone’s availability to come speak to us.”
At the start of the pandemic last March, government bodies scrambled to find ways to conduct business virtually while still in line with open-meeting laws. Per North Carolina general statute, local school boards, as well as city councils and county commissioners, are required to hold at least one public comment period each month at a regular meeting. The New Hanover County Board of Education began offering the option for people to call in to weigh in on issues while business was conducted partly via Zoom, while other bodies opted for email messages or online comment forms.
Stephanie Walker was one of the board members in the minority who wanted to extend the use of call-in public comments. She posted on her campaign’s Facebook page on Feb. 15 to make her stance known: “Just for the record – I fully support keeping the remote call-in option for call to the audience,” Walker wrote.
On a phone call Friday, she explained, “If people don’t feel safe to come in, they should still be able to call in. I’m all for transparency. I’m all for people being able to speak their minds, even if I don’t want to hear it because, believe me, it wasn’t really fun when parents were calling in mad at us, but at the same time, that’s their right to say what they want to say.”
Speakers address a range of subjects during their 2 to 3 minutes, often taking advantage of the public format and eyes and ears of the fellow audience, central office staff and board members to bring attention to issues.
Last month, NAACP’s George Vlasits called in to express concern over inequity in schools and how ending the use of suspensions could help level the playing field.
Laney High School alum Chris Sutton argued in person why he feels the district should remove the name of former Deputy Superintendent Dr. Rick Holliday from the school’s football stadium, in light of an ongoing SBI investigation into the administration’s failures to report sexual misconduct.
The voices of several elementary school-aged children were heard as well, one asking, “Can you let us go back to school?”
In past months, the public comment period has been filled with controversial debate over the board’s decision to return elementary students to school full-time during the pandemic. At the most recent regular meeting, which was held only a few hours after Gov. Roy Cooper publicly called on districts to reopen schools safely, the public comment period lasted over an hour. At the 60-minute mark, there were 16 calls left and the board chose to extend the period to hear all the speakers.
The board has struggled to constrict its meetings to under five hours. A recently formed committee met for the first time Feb. 23 to work on ways to plan more efficient agendas. Board member Judy Justice, who now serves on that ad hoc, has been a proponent of shortening meetings to avoid making hasty decisions during late hours. (When the board initially voted in December to reopen elementary schools in January, it was around 10 p.m. It reversed its decision afterward.)
However, Justice said she is not in favor of removing any remote option yet.
“There are people that are compromised and can’t come down to the meetings that might want to speak, and until they get the vaccinations, why put them at risk?” Justice said.
Currently, only up to 25 people are allowed in the audience of school board meetings. There’s also the option to tune in to the meeting from home on NHCS’ YouTube channel.
“I think people can decide for themselves how they want to do call to the audience in terms of, some people can probably wait outside, wait in the car, come in when it’s their turn,” vice-chair Nelson Beaulieu said.
Most governmental bodies are continuing remote public comments at this time. The Brunswick County Board of Education allows people to email comments to be read aloud during meetings, and Pender County Schools uses a voicemail system similar to NHCS’ for people to record messages to be played for the board.
Board member Stephanie Kraybill said she was willing to go with whatever the majority of her constituents wanted to do. “It wasn’t necessarily worth falling on your sword for because people can be heard. They can always email us, they can always call us and they can always show up,” she said.
She compared it to the three separate plans the school district has considered when it comes to reopening schools – Plan A (an all in-person option) Plan B (a half in-person, half remote option) or Plan C (all remote). Elementary schools are moving into Plan A on March 8, with Plan C still an option for families who are not comfortable sending their kids to a face-to-face class.
“The call the audience is kind of the same way. There’s no more Plan B,” Kraybill said. “There’s a Plan A – you come – or Plan C – you send us an email.”
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