U46 board approves new rules limiting public comments
Elgin-area U46 officials voted Monday to cut the amount of time people can speak during public comment at school board meetings despite cries from opponents that the new rules shortchange discussion of public policy.
The change follows meetings that have attracted dozens of speakers addressing the district’s locker room access policy for transgender students.
In a 4-3 vote, board members approved changes to limit speakers to two minutes if more than 20 people want to comment on topics that are not on that night’s school board agenda. They will be allowed three minutes if there are fewer than 20 speakers and their topic is on the agenda.
Members of the public talking about agenda items also will be allowed to speak during the first public comment section of the meeting. Those addressing non-agenda items will speak during the second block of public comments.
“This was the best way to have public comment and have some type of balance between the public comment and the agenda,” School Board President Donna Smith said.
Board members Cody Holt, Phil Costello and Jeanette Ward voted against the new rules.
Costello said he thinks the change is “shortchanging” discussion.
“The district’s business, while very important, is only legitimized to the extent that we can offer the voters a voice in that process and not after (the) fact,” he said.
Smith said she’s not asking for anyone to be silenced or positioned as more important.
“I’m looking for a balance between comments and the work that makes sense — and (to) give people that ability to voice their opinions,” she said.
The issue erupted after Ward posted a statement last month on Facebook that the district “has opted not to inform parents or the community” about a locker room policy. She encouraged anyone who had concerns to contact district administration.
Tony Sanders, the district's chief executive officer, said guidelines were developed after a transgender student requested access to a locker room matching the student's gender identity. The guidelines call for the student to use a private changing stall and for the locker room to be supervised by an adult. Sanders also said any student who does not feel safe in a locker room or bathroom should contact the principal of their school.
Ward, who was available by phone at Monday’s meeting, questioned why the board is making the change to the public comment rules.
Smith said she proposed the idea to draft guidelines because district business was being delayed. She said her decision to bring it forward has nothing to do with the topics of discussion.
Guidelines were drafted with the assistance of an external law firm, and school board members were not involved in the process, school officials said.
Costello said he applauds the public for voicing concerns and suspects there are many who haven’t spoken on the issue yet.
“There are a lot of people out there who have a lot of opinions,” he said. “We just need to listen a lot more.”
Sanders said he stands by the decision to set the locker room guidelines because they were necessary.
“We had a board policy that said we don’t discriminate, but we did not have set guidelines,” Sanders said.
Sanders said the district’s goal was to make sure that one student returned to school.
To date, one student has submitted a request to access a locker room of the gender in which they identify, district officials said.
Board member Traci O’Neal Ellis said she’s upset by the way in which some constituents of the district expect she and other members of the board to bend to their demands.
“It’s easy when you’re not an elected official to talk about doing what the people want,” she said. “But the people are diverse, and the people want lots of different things, and they all… are polar opposites of each other.”
O’Neal Ellis said elections allow the public to shape the future of the district. U46 school board positions up for re-election in 2017 include the expiring terms for board president Donna Smith and board members Veronica Noland and Cody Holt.