A blog about living in Aberdeen, New Jersey.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Elizabeth Parents More Concerned Than Ours to Have Voice?

Elizabeth parents take court action over school board's public comment policy

by Leslie Kwoh/The Star-Ledger
Thursday February 12, 2009, 3:19 PM

A group of angry parents filed a court injunction against the Elizabeth school board this week, claiming a move to revise the public comments portion of meetings violates their freedom of speech.

"I'm sure this is unconstitutional," said James Carey, 43, the Elizabeth chair for the People's Organization for Progress, and the father of two daughters in the K-12 district. "This thing is out of control."

In this 2004 file photo, then-Elizabeth School Board Vice President Cherry Wilcots looks on as then-President Raul Burgos tells a member of the community their three minutes are up during the public portion of a meeting.

What angered Carey and a handful of other parents, who filed the injunction Wednesday at the Union County court, was a resolution the board passed last month requiring residents who wish to speak at a meeting to sign in beforehand.

The move, the group contends, would further restrict the voices of concerned parents. The new rule supplements a resolution the district adopted in 1986 that limits a resident's speaking time to three minutes and prohibits personal attacks, vulgar language or the naming of individuals. That resolution also grants the board president the right to interrupt or terminate a statement if it is lengthy, abusive or irrelevant, and to ask anyone who does not observe "reasonable decorum" to leave the meeting.

However, district officials say the sign-in sheet is simply a way to help the board organize its meetings.

"You want to be able to conduct the business of a school district effectively and efficiently," said district spokesman Don Goncalves. "This way, we have a list of individuals who want to speak, and on what topic, so we can organize our meetings accordingly."

Since last year, all New Jersey school districts have been required to include a public comments portion at their meetings, but the policies governing it are up to each individual school board, according to the New Jersey School Boards Association.

"School boards can put reasonable time restrictions on public comment, can restrict the length of comments, can restrict comments to items on the agenda," said association spokesman Frank Belluscio.

Elizabeth's regulations do not seem unusual and actually mirror that of many school districts, he added, some of which have had similar resolutions in place for decades.

In Dennis Township in Cape May County, residents are limited to a speaking time of three minutes and must sign in prior to meetings, according to a bylaw adopted in 1999. The presiding officer may also interrupt or terminate a statement, or request an individual to leave. In the Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District, participants can only speak on one issue at a time, for no more than three minutes, and must register before the meeting. In Hamilton Township, the public comments portion of the meeting is limited to 30 minutes, with each participant allotted a maximum of five minutes.

Still, some parents in Elizabeth say they worry that introducing more rules will only alienate the public. Ronda Bell, who has two children in the district, said she stopped attending meetings last year after becoming frustrated with the way the board runs the public comments portion. Bell, 42, said she recalls several times when a resident was interrupted mid-sentence, and not permitted to continue.

"I think they're trying to dominate what goes on in the schools," Bell said. "They don't want to listen to us."

Source: NJ.com

See also this follow up edition several hours later.


  1. The Matawan Aberdeen School District has 2 opportunities for the public to speak. Near the beginning of the meeting, time is apportioned for people speaking on agenda items. After an executive session break, the public is invited to speak on any topic.
    The issue I have with all this, is that the items on the agenda discuss reports that are not provided ahead of time. The Board staff usually spend the day of the meeting preparing, copying, and assembling reports. Often only the board members have copies, or only a few are put on a table for the public.
    The "Agenda" itself is one of the least informative and cryptic documents I have seen, yet often is the only piece of information I have to understand what is going on. I cannot imagine how there can be any rational expectation that the public will have the ability to know what to speak on, or have anything to add to the topic.
    Ideally the reports to be submitted for approval and comment should be put online at least 3 days before a meeting in order to provide a reasonable good faith effort to inform and communicate with the public. This would be economical, efficient, and fair.

  2. To the school board's credit, only once was I ever cut off at the 3-minute time limit.

    I agree, it would be nice to have more advanced notice of the agenda. The reason it's only posted the business day prior is that it's under constant revision until the day before the meeting. The district doesn't post earlier versions to prevent confusion.

    Also, the school board usually only votes on items that were first discussed at the committee of the whole meeting.

    Still, I agree with Dusty that it makes more sense to first have the presentations, then allow public comment before any vote.

  3. "Pencils down." Isn't that what they say when time is up at the SATs? A document can be revised as much as necessary, but I agree with Dusty that the final version should be submitted and posted online some days before the meeting at which the board will discuss it or the document cannot be brought up. The public should have time to consider the documents under discussion. I think organizations get a little too cozy and cliquish sometimes. This sort of rule would just push the deadline madness back a few days.