Sarasota School Board votes to tighten rules on public comment at meetings

Ryan McKinnon
Sarasota Herald-Tribune

The Sarasota County School Board voted 3-2 to impose stricter public comment rules, following more than a year of meetings with highly vocal community members wanting to address the government board. 

Board members Shirley Brown, Tom Edwards and Jane Goodwin voted to advertise a new policy before formally voting on it next month. Karen Rose and Bridget Ziegler opposed the change. 

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The policy's most significant change is to divide public comment into two portions, with one dedicated to items on the meeting agenda and a second period of public comment at the end of the meeting when the public can speak about general items. 

Melissa Bakondy quotes lines from "The Hate U Give" by Angie Thomas to the members Sarasota County School Board and Superintendent Dr. Brennan Asplen during an open meeting at the School Board of Sarasota County building over the summer. MATT HOUSTON / HERALD-TRIBUNE

If more than 30 people sign up to speak, the board chair can limit each person to two minutes, or cap public comment at one hour. 

The policy forbids "actions such as cheering, jeering, discriminatory, unreasonably loud, abusive or profane language or gestures." 

Board members favoring the shift said that it was to ensure school district staff members did not have to sit through hours of public comment, which has been frequently dominated by national issues in the past year, such as Critical Race Theory or COVID-19.  

“(We) want to make sure the business is done, and then they have my full attention,” Edwards said.

Both Rose and Ziegler have said the changes would only weaken public trust in the School Board and come at the worst possible time.

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In the future, parents or stakeholders wishing to address the board on something that is not specifically on the board's agenda would have to wait until the end of the meeting, if the board passes the rule next month. . 

Ziegler said every time the board has discussed changing public comment policy it was “almost always” after the public had been critical of the board.

“Then we find ourselves saying how do we redo this?” Ziegler said.

Brown, the board chairwoman, said that School Board meetings are not the most effective spot for parents to air their grievances, and that it is more effective to work directly with administrators. 

Ryan McKinnon covers schools for the Herald-Tribune. Connect with him at or on Twitter: @JRMcKinnon. Support the Sarasota Herald-Tribune by subscribing today.