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Should public input be at the beginning or end of the meeting, or during each agenda item? What is the best way to schedule this portion of the meeting?

This is a puzzle shared by many boards.

There are multiple ways to address the timing of public comment during a school board meeting, and each has its positives and negatives.

  1. Holding public comment at the beginning of the meeting allows people to speak and then leave if they do not want to sit through the entire meeting. This practice also makes it clear that the speakers are being asked to give their input on the topic only, as stated in the agenda. They are not asked to be a part of the discussion. The negative side of public comment at the beginning of the meeting is that you are asking people to comment on something before the presentation of content or the board discussion has occurred.
  2. Another option is to allow public comment at the time of the agenda item. Now the same conundrum: at the front end or the back end of the agenda item? At the front end you have the same problem as in #1 above. If you have a presentation on the topic, public members could comment just after that. If you allow comment after board discussion but before the board takes action, does the board re-discuss based on the comments? And then of course the audience will want to comment on that discussion as well…which can cycle on and on. Allowing the audience to "join in" the discussion is VERY problematic because it can become a free for all and the audience may end up running the discussion and meeting, which is not appropriate. I have even seen this situation occur where the audience feels (and vehemently voices) that since members have been part of the discussion they should also be allowed to vote. Try to stop THAT freight train. Allowing public comment on each agenda item can make for a very long meeting. Some attendance members will feel that since they are there and you are allowing input on each item they individually should speak on every item, regardless of adding value to the discussion. 
  3. Allow public comment at the end of the meeting. The positive is that the public gets to weigh in on what they have heard. The negative is that action may have already been taken. All they can do is react to what has been done, not provide input which influences the decision.
  4. Allow comment at the beginning of the meeting, at the end of the meeting, and on certain topics of high emotion or interest allow input after the presentation of material but before the board discussion and vote. This can be confusing to the audience because members aren’t sure when to speak, and you will get people who say the same thing all three times because they can.

There is no perfect solution. Your board has to decide which scenario works best for you. The most important advice I can give you, whichever you choose, is to be clear with the public what the process will be.

On very important or emotional topics – where you draw a big crowd and the topic threatens to take over the whole meeting, or you need the public’s input before you make a decision - I suggest you schedule a separate "listening session" on that topic only. Plan it for a date in the very close future (no more than a week away) and advertise it to everyone. Run it like a hearing, and make it clear the board is there to listen to both/all sides and will not discuss or take action that evening. In some very limited cases where you are surprised by an upset group at a regular meeting it is even worthwhile to cancel the current night's planned agenda and run it right then only as a listening session. Recognize you may not be hearing a broad range of viewpoints when you do this, but only the most vocal perspectives. This process is generally used when the attendees arrive upset and not waiting will only cause further agitation. It is important that the board not be pressured into taking action on the spot, but take time to make sure differing views have been heard, all the necessary information has been obtained and the administration has had time to research the situation and provide administrative input and recommendations.

For more information on this question, Ask Betsy's Team.