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School Board to consider public comment changes

Proposed changes to the Isle of Wight County School Board’s public comment policies, which would repeal the 30-minute cap, are set to be voted on at the board’s Nov. 10 meeting.

Currently, board policy BDDH states that any member of the community may address the School Board on matters related to Isle of Wight County public schools at any regular meeting, with the chairman or chairwoman responsible for deciding the “appropriateness of the subject being presented and length of time for such presentation.” An exhibit attached to that policy further specifies that each speaker is allotted a maximum of five minutes and not permitted to speak more than once per meeting, with the total allotted time for public comments capped at 30 minutes.

Policies BDDH and BDDH-E are identical to policies KD and KD-E.

The proposed changes repeal the 30-minute cap, but also reduce the allotted time per speaker to four minutes and restrict public comments made at the beginning of the meeting to items scheduled on that meeting’s agenda for discussion. Speakers wishing to speak on a topic not listed on the agenda would need to wait until the conclusion of the meeting to be heard.

“It clarifies you’re speaking about the business you’re conducting that night — before you actually conduct it — and then anything else, I think you’re still valuing their community input but that’s now moved until after all business is conducted,” said Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton during a discussion of the proposed changes at a special meeting on Nov. 8.

According to Carr, the public comment policies are set to be voted on at the board’s regular monthly meeting on Nov. 10. The public comment policies aren’t currently listed under policy updates and revisions in that meeting’s agenda, but Carr anticipates a motion to amend the agenda during the meeting.

The 30-minute public comment cap has come under fire from critics of the school system’s equity and inclusion initiatives who have shown up in numbers at recent meetings to oppose Smithfield High School’s “Read Woke” challenge and other examples of what they perceive as the influence of Critical Race Theory in K-12 schools. Critical Race Theory, a discipline typically studied at the college or graduate school level, argues American law has perpetuated racism and inequalities among minority groups. The SHS “Read Woke” challenge encourages students to voluntarily read social justice-themed books available at the school’s library.

At the October meeting, after the board voted to suspend the 30-minute cap for that evening only, more than a dozen speakers spoke on the ongoing Critical Race Theory debate, some arguing against its perceived influence and others arguing a focus on equity and race relations is needed.