Gilbert Public Schools reversed course on its decision to implement a time limit on public comment at meetings within a week of receiving an outcry of criticism from community members.
In a press statement released April 29, the district announced it will no longer limit public comment to 30 minutes total at Gilbert Public Schools Governing Board meetings. Members of the public will continue to have three minutes a piece to address the board.
“The perception was that I was limiting speech and, often, perception is reality. The prudent compromise is to end the 30-minute time limit effective immediately,” Interim Superintendent Jim Rice said in the release.
The district implemented the policy on April 8 to cut down the length of meetings, which Rice said in an interview with ABC15 had become excessively long in recent years.
Public protest of the decision came shortly thereafter and peaked at the April 22 board meeting that had community members protest in front of the district officer prior to the start of a regularly scheduled meeting. Parent and volunteer Shannon Dougherty wrote a letter to the board about the change and called the decision “unnecessary” and added the new format penalized “community participation.”
With her letter was a petition signed by 521 people, who expressed similar disdain for the new policy and claimed it allowed the board to “select their speakers of choice and could lead to acts of discrimination” and eliminates, “the only means of effective communication our community has with majority members of the board.”
Others alleged the decision violated freedom of speech rights for residents, although Arizona Revised Statute 38-431.01 states open comments at meetings involving public entities like school boards and city councils are “subject to reasonable time, place and manner restrictions.” Gilbert Public Schools repeats the verbiage in its own open-meeting policy.
The district also addressed that issue in its press release, which stated the policy was not a violation of freedom of speech per state policy. However, Rice’s decision to rescind the new policy did stem in part from the perception the policy limited public speech opportunities.
“The culture of these board meetings is that the public have always had the freedom to speak. The intent was never to not allow public comment,” he said.
In an email correspondence, Dougherty said she is satisfied that Rice and the board decided to eliminate the policy.
“GPS has a long history of high community/parental involvement at every level. There’s no sound reason to discourage that now.”
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