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Sullivan school board's public comment session split into two

Rick Wagner • Feb 5, 2018 at 8:00 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — Instead of moving to limit public comment on non-agenda items, the Sullivan County school board seems on a course that would put public comment on agenda items before any board votes and comments on non-agenda items at the end of meetings.

Director of Schools Evelyn Rafalowski said the move should make everybody happy and also just makes sense, and because that change does not require formal board action, the split comment sessions will begin on tonight’s (Feb. 5) agenda.

The first public comment session will be after student recognitions but before any board votes, the Policy Committee, which includes Rafalowski and Board of Education Vice Chairman Randall Jones, proposed, while a second public comment session on non-agenda items will be at the end of the agenda, a move also suggested by the Policy Committee.

Current public comments are given at the end of the meeting but used to be near the start. The Executive Committee, Rafalowski and BOE Chairman Michael Hughes, can make the public comment change without formal board approval, and board members indicated no opposition to the idea during a work session.

“Everybody gets what they want that way,” Rafalowski said.

The proposed change came after a discussion at the January BOE work session during which Mark Ireson said he thought the board was perceived as unapproachable by some in the public and proposed public comment changes would foster that perception. 

The original idea discussed in a policy change was to allow only public comments on agenda items unless a would-be public speaker gave advance notice by filling out a form notifying the board of his or her intent to speak on a non-agenda item, which included telling what the non-agenda item would be. Kingsport City Schools requires all non-agenda comment topics to be approved after the advance notice, while the county proposal was simply that advance notice be given.

Policy 1.404 Appeals and Appearances would be changed slightly by a planned vote in March. Rafalowski and Hughes have expressed concerns about students, particularly younger ones, being  present when some public comments were made.

However, since most students leave after the recognition section near the start of the meeting, before votes, shifting the comments to after the director and chairman sections and before the voting would allow those students to leave, she said.

The board is to have a called meeting 4:30 p.m. Feb. 8 to vote on whether to request the Tennessee Supreme Court to allow an appeal of a liquor-by-the-drink lawsuit the County Commission and school board filed against Kingsport and Bristol, Tenn. However, Rafalowski said she did not put the matter on the Monday, Feb. 5, agenda because she thought the topic was inappropriate for younger students, since it involves alcohol. No public comments are allowed at a called meeting, and state law does not require public comments be allowed, only that the public be allowed to attend and given notice of the time, day and place of public meetings.

Seven fifth-grade students will shadow the five board members Monday night as part of a school board appreciation week, while other students will be recognized from middle and high schools.

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