Delta school districts restrict public comment following testy exchanges with citizens

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Aallyah Wright

The Board of Trustees and superintendent of the Clarksdale Municipal School District at their August 15 meeting

CLARKSDALE –  Two weeks ago, the Clarksdale Municipal School District board members and a Clarksdale citizen got into a heated debate during the public comment portion at a board meeting. Now, the school board is moving toward an existing but unenforced policy that requires citizens to make a written request before making public comments, the district announced recently.

“In our current policy we do have public comments,” Superintendent Joe Nelson Jr. said at the meeting. “Public comments have to be written seven days before the meeting, so that was already in our policy. That’s not something new. We just want to make sure we’re re-enforcing it.”

School board president H. Clay Stillons said the board isn’t “avoiding commentary” but the re-enforcement of this plan would help with “organization.”

“We’re just telling you we’re going to adhere to that policy,” he said, adding that some people, “come in and sign up that day and stand up and they speak. We don’t have a clue what they’re going to say. We’re supposed to know what they’re going to address.”

A search of the district’s website returns no results for the existing public comment policy Nelson and Stillons reference.      

The Clarksdale district’s current policy defines public comments as “an opportunity for members of the general public to briefly express their ideas, concerns and suggestions to the school board on matters of individual or community interest.” 

The policy, adopted and revised in 2015, further states the board will “allow 30 minutes on the agenda for public comments; the first ten people signing the roster at the board meeting will be given three minutes each to comment to the board.”

If those issues require more than three minutes and possible board action or response, another section of the district policy states, the general public must then request in writing to the office of the superintendent their name, address, telephone number, signature, date of the board meeting, and reasons for the request no later than noon on the Friday preceding the regular board meeting. 

The rule change came after at a July 30 meeting when Cedell Brownlee Sr., a local pastor, asked the board for a copy of the April, May, and June meeting minutes. Stillons, the board president, mentioned the district did not have a board secretary, but assured Brownlee he would get the minutes as soon as possible. 

Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

Clarksdale Municipal School District board president H. Clay Stillons (left) and Earl Joe Nelson Jr., at the July 30 school board meeting

Brownlee then directed his comments to the superintendent, insisting Nelson look “inside the district” to employ teachers instead of bringing in outside people.

“I think you should look at the people already here. Anytime something come up, they wanna bring somebody in and that’s discourteous to the people already in the system,” said Brownlee, who could not be reached to comment for this story. “If I was in the system and every time you look around somebody (new is) coming in, I’ll  find somewhere else to go and you lose a lot of good people that way.”

After a minute of Brownlee and board member Shirley Fields talking over each other, Stillons said, “You were given an opportunity to speak and you spoke, OK. It’s now the board’s turn if anyone wants to address it. It’s not a discussion.”

Public comments are a staple of local government meetings, but the rules that govern them are left to local entities.

In the Jackson Public School District, for example, anyone who wants to make a presentation to the board must submit a request in writing to the superintendent’s office six days before a school board meeting. The superintendent must approve the presentation for it to be added to the meeting agenda. However, those wanting only to address the school board can sign up before the meeting begins with their name and general topic, district spokesperson Sherwin Johnson said. With both options, speakers get three minutes to address the board.

A Mississippi Today review of policies from seven districts across the state show members of the public are typically allowed to sign up to speak at the meeting, but none mention a requirement that the request be made in writing or in advance.

In North Bolivar Consolidated School District, however, the board has completely removed the public comment portion of the meeting, meaning the public has no opportunity to be heard there.

“That was a board decision,” said Maurice Smith, Superintendent of North Bolivar Consolidated School District.

The decision came on the heels of an embittered battle between the communities of Mound Bayou and Shelby when the board voted to close John F. Kennedy – the high school in Mound Bayou.

At the board’s August 19 meeting, an armed security guard asked Mound Bayou community member Jackie Lucas to step out after she corrected the board president for incorrectly calling an executive session. The comment was not loud enough to be heard from a few rows over.

Lucas was allowed to re-enter the meeting following a discussion in the hallway with the security guard.

And although entities must follow the state’s Open Meetings Act, the law does not afford citizens the right to speak.

 Tom Hood, executive director of the Mississippi Ethics Commission, which enforces state public records and open meeting laws, said the public “doesn’t have the right to speak at meetings” and it is the “norm for boards and commissions” to set their own regulations on conduct with respect to public comment.

“The Open Meetings Act gives members of the public the right to attend and see what’s going on at the meetings except for a proper executive session,” Hood said in a phone call with Mississippi Today. He went on to say his office and the attorney general’s office have “encouraged” public bodies to welcome public comment at their meetings.

Matt Steffey, a constitutional law professor at Mississippi College, said Clarkdale’s policy passes legal muster as long as the board does not discriminate against a particular group in enforcing it.

The Mississippi School Board Association provides a sample policy districts can adopt featured in its meetings manual. This mirrors policies implemented in the aforementioned districts. Despite this, policies are left to the discretion of the school board, a MSBA representative said.

The Clarksdale superintendent and school board president could not be reached for comment by the time of publication.

Kayleigh Skinner and Kelsey Davis contributed to this story.