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Grand Rapids Public Schools discuss public comment policy

Board member Maureen Slade (middle) gestures at security guards at the meeting, "I don't think we have anything to fear from our public."
Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio
Board member Maureen Slade (middle) gestures at security guards at the meeting, "I don't think we have anything to fear from our public."

Grand Rapids Public Schools is revising how it lets people comment at school board meetings. The district has a unique policy (see page 51-54). A Grand Rapids school board member says he couldn’t find any other district in Michigan with a similar provision.

Right now people can sign up to speak to the school board about an issue that’s on the agenda at the meeting. But if they want to talk about something that’s not on the agenda, they have to sign up 5 days in advance. They also have to tell what they’d like to speak about. Some school board members and parents say that discourages people from speaking up. School board secretary Wendy Falb is one of them.

“I want more public comment. I want more access to perspective so that I can do my job better. And I want people to feel that their perspective is going to be heard because they’re going to be more engaged; those parents are going to feel that they belong in those schools.”

But others say the policy helps prevent issues from blowing up at meetings. They also say it prevents people from slinging unwarranted personal attacks, which had been a problem in the past. They argue in some cases students' and employees' privacy was threatened by such speech.

One board member referenced recent shootings at a public meeting in Florida as reason to consider keeping the policy. Many scoffed at the comparison, but not Superintendent Bernard Taylor.

“Because civility doesn’t rein here and because of what happened in Florida, I’m sorry, I don’t know who’s sitting out here. I don’t know why they’re here, I don’t know what they may or may not do. And I did not take this job to put my life on the line.”

The board narrowly rejected a measure that would have changed the provision, but board members indicated it seemed better to form a new subcommittee to study the issue better and recommend changes.

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.