The Journal Gazette
Friday, January 21, 2022 1:00 am

NACS board to open mic to public

Audience comments 1st since Sept. 27

ASHLEY SLOBODA | The Journal Gazette

The Northwest Allen County Schools board will welcome an in-person audience for the first time in months Monday.

And attendees wishing to address the board will get their chance during the “audience comments” portion of the meeting, according to an agenda released Thursday.

The board meets at 6 p.m. in the Perry Hill Elementary School cafeteria, 13121 Coldwater Road. Attendee should enter through Door 1.

The five-member board – which has attracted disruptive, unruly audiences in the last year – shifted to a virtual format Oct. 13, and it held its first meeting without public comment Sept. 27. The board restructured its meetings because of increased safety concerns during and after board meetings.

NACS has said the pause in public comment would provide time for assessment, design and implementation of an enhanced safety plan for meetings.

The in-person meetings will resume as COVID-19 cases surge in Allen County, which reported a record high 1,361 cases Wednesday followed by 1,220 new infections Thursday.

“We paused public comment to adjust the board's comment policy, not because of COVID,” spokeswoman Lizette Downey said Thursday. “We went to a virtual format until the policy was in place and since the revisions were approved Jan. 10, we are returning to in person meetings with the opportunity for community input.”

NACS is expected to provide additional guidance on meeting logistics as early as today, Downey said.

State lawmakers are putting pressure on school boards to let citizens speak. A House panel advanced a bill Wednesday that would require local school boards to allow public comment during meetings. House Bill 1130 says school boards can limit comment, but not to less than 3 minutes per person.

At NACS, comments will be limited to 30 minutes, with each person limited to two minutes. Speakers must sign up before the start of the public comment period, according to the updated bylaw addressing public participation.

Anyone with a legitimate interest in the board's actions may participate, but if more people want to speak than can be heard in the time allotted, the board may vote to limit speakers to district residents, employees, parents and taxpayers.

Previously, the public comment period could last hours, with many speakers repeating themselves at each meeting. They often bemoaned COVID-19 protocols or criticized leadership. The revised bylaw states the board expects attendees to treat each other with civility, courtesy and respect.

The presiding officer – typically the board president – may request that disorderly attendees be removed, and the presiding officer may stop a speaker under certain circumstances, such as when comments are repetitive or threatening.

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