New Hanover school board to consider changes to public comment period

New Hanover school board to consider changes to public comment period
Published: Mar. 7, 2023 at 7:12 PM EST
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - The New Hanover County Board of Education is once again considering changing how it interacts with the public during board meetings.

The board unanimously agreed to send its policy on its public comment session back to the policy committee to consider different ways to conduct the call to audience section of its meeting.

Each month, the board offers 30 two-minute time slots to speak before the board during its meetings—and they typically fill up with parents and community members ready to speak their mind.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the board has offered online signups for the public comment session. Twenty-five of the 30 slots would be available for signup online starting at 8 a.m. the day before the meeting. Chairman Pete Wildeboer said that is one of the aspects of the public comment session they’re interested in changing.

Last month, dozens of people attempted to sign up online to speak during public comment, filling all 25 slots up in just a few minutes, because the board was set to discuss a controversial policy around transgender athletes. The online signup also accidentally allowed more than 25 people to sign up online.

Those who regularly speak at the meetings said they’ve never had an issue with the call to audience sign-up filling up as quickly as it did in February. They hope any changes made to the call to the audience won’t stifle their voices going forward.

“There’s no need to change it because no matter what they do on months when they have controversial topics… people are going to sign up quickly,” Kristina Mercier said. “In months when there are not controversial topics, people are not going to have that rush. So to me, I really wish they would focus more on things that are directly impacting our students versus trying to halt the public voice.”

Wildeboer said he heard concerns after last month’s meeting that the sign up limits the ability for people who aren’t able to get to a computer to sign up at 8 a.m. to speak—like teachers and students who are in school at that time. He said he’s interested in changing how many slots are available for sign-up online, and returning to in-person sign-ups where people can add their name to the list of speakers as they walk in the door for the meeting.

The board has also previously explored options of limiting how many people can speak on one topic, and instead, having a group speaking on the same topic designates a spokesperson to free up time for other issues. Wildeboer said he’s not sure if that’s of interest to the current board at this point, but could be part of the conversation during the meeting.

Some board members also expressed interest in offering translators for people who don’t speak English during call to audience sessions, as well as bringing in someone to do sign language throughout meetings to make them more inclusive.