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School Board seeking to limit public comment

The Buffalo School Board is considering a limit on the total number of residents who can speak at each business meeting and a limit on how many can speak on any particular topic.

Under a proposed policy, no more than five members of the public would be allowed to speak about the same topic at one meeting -- and no more than 20 people total could speak at one meeting.

The current board policy, adopted 10 years ago, imposes a limit of 30 speakers at each meeting. There is no limit on how many people can talk about a single topic.

With each speaker allowed up to three minutes, the public comment portion of a meeting can last up to an hour and a half before the board begins conducting its business, at-large board member John B. Licata noted. Board meetings begin at 5:30 p.m. In some cases, he said, the meetings run past 10 p.m.

"Five speakers on a single topic seems to be sufficient to get the board's attention," he said. "With the [proposed policy], the board reserves the right to limit the number of people commenting on the same issue, essentially preventing overkill or monopolizing a board meeting on a single issue."

In Buffalo, as in other school districts, public interest ebbs and flows with various issues. Frequently, a single topic will capture the attention of most of the residents who speak at a particular board meeting.

For instance, about a year ago, talks about the closure of Campus West School regularly drew many teachers, parents and even students who spoke at board meetings.

More recently, at each board meeting over the last few months, Alliance for Quality Education and Citizen Action have organized people -- sometimes more than a dozen at a single meeting -- to urge the board to end out-of-school suspensions for nonviolent offenses.

No board member ever responded to those comments during a meeting, and the board did not take any action on suspensions.

But in response to the concerns raised by members of the public, interim Superintendent Amber M. Dixon directed her staff to convene public hearings on the issue. She followed up by implementing an 11-point plan that involved altering district regulations regarding suspensions -- something that did not require board approval.

Under the proposed policy, members of the public who wish to speak during a meeting would still need to register by calling the board office at 851-3567 or 851-3568 by noon on the Tuesday before a Wednesday session. They would have to indicate the topic they planned to address, as they do now. And speakers would still be limited to three minutes apiece.

The policy notes that the School Board "currently is the only public board in Buffalo that allows speakers at their business meeting."

Common Council President Richard A. Fontana said it has been Council practice "for decades" not to permit public comment at business meetings. But, he said, members of the public are welcome to comment -- and regularly do -- during committee meetings in Council Chambers on Tuesdays.

"Most of the work is done at committee," Fontana said.

Speakers do not have to register ahead of time to speak at committee meetings, he said. They can show up during a committee meeting and voice their opinions about the matter at hand. Speakers can be limited to three minutes apiece, he said, but that rarely happens.

"It's very liberal," he said.

Likewise, the Erie County Legislature does not allow public comment during its regular meetings but does during committee meetings. Even so, it's relatively rare that residents address the Legislature, said Legislator Lynn M. Marinelli, D-Town of Tonawanda, the longest-serving member. Constituents frequently call, email, stop by the office, or send messages via Facebook or Twitter to their representative but rarely speak directly to the full Legislature, she said.

"There is an engagement with the public," she said. "But the least of all vehicles is for them to drive downtown on a Thursday afternoon for a meeting."

School Board committee meetings -- generally about three or four hours long, two Wednesday evenings a month -- are open to the public, but there is no time set aside for comments from the public during those sessions.

In Rochester, a city school district nearly as big as Buffalo, there is no limit on the number of speakers, who have to register by noon the day of a board meeting. Each person may speak for up to three minutes. The total time allowed for public comment during a meeting is capped at 60 minutes.

In Erie County, most school boards outside Buffalo do incorporate public comment as a part of their regular meetings. Generally, speakers are limited to three minutes apiece, but there is no limit on the number of speakers per topic or per meeting.