Public comments return to start of School Board meetings under adopted bylaws

Published 4:52 pm Monday, February 13, 2023

Public comments on any matter, agenda-related or not, will return to the start of each Isle of Wight County School Board meeting under new bylaws written by Board Chairman John Collick.

The board voted 3-2 on Feb. 9 to adopt the bylaws.

The now 15-page document, which will replace the School Board’s ethics policy and board protocols for the remainder of the calendar year, moves non-agenda-related comments to immediately after the approval of the meeting’s agenda.

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Previously, the board had allowed non-agenda-related comments only at the end of each meeting after the board’s scheduled business had concluded. The prior policy dates to 2021 when the board replaced a 30-minute cap on public comments with an indefinite total time allotted, but split agenda-related and non-related comments and began requiring speakers to list the topic they wished to discuss on a signup sheet.

The 30-minute cap had come under fire in 2021 from critics of the school system’s equity and inclusion initiatives who would frequently use and sometimes exceed the allotted time to argue the initiatives were “divisive” and tied to Critical Race Theory, a college-level legal theory that contends American laws and institutions have perpetuated inequalities among minorities.

Collick, in 2021, and newly elected School Board members Jason Maresh and Mark Wooster, in 2022, had each campaigned for their seats on platforms of opposition to CRT, as it’s often abbreviated.

The bylaws, however, specify that public comments are to remain governed by Policy BDDH, which still states that comments are to follow the procedures set forth in Policy BDDH-E. Policy BDDH-E still specifies that those wishing to speak on non-agenda topics “will only be permitted to speak at the conclusion of the presentation for all items on the Agenda.”

According to Collick, “the bylaws prevail” if there is a conflict between them and existing policies.

“Whenever a conflict is identified, we will work to resolve it as quickly as possible, working within the bylaws,” Collick said.

Another new provision in the bylaws states the School Board “shall not waive” any bylaw or policy without having a majority vote at two consecutive meetings, but an earlier draft’s requirement that the chair publish a “written justification” for the waiver to Isle of Wight County Schools’ website within seven days of the vote was struck from the adopted version.

Collick had initially written a 14-page version of the bylaws that was sent to board members on Jan. 10. 

The adopted bylaws also now require two meetings per month, up from one, the second of which would be a work session held on the fourth Thursday at 6 p.m. At the work sessions, the board would “discuss potential items for consideration at a future meeting” but “shall not take any action to approve or deny any item” unless the work session was scheduled “as a result of public comments.”

Additional provisions in the Jan. 10 draft that didn’t make it into the adopted version included a requirement that the board clerk report “directly to the chair” and another stating that “neither the superintendent nor his staff is authorized to hold any meeting for the general public, without the express, prior approval of the School Board.”

The adopted bylaws now allow any board member to make a motion for a recess if business continues past 10 p.m., instead of the 9 p.m. cutoff and required motion to continue that the Jan. 10 draft had specified.

Collick, Maresh and Wooster each voted in favor of the bylaws. Board members Denise Tynes and Michael Cunningham voted against the document.

Cunningham took issue with the monthly work sessions, noting it would require both the superintendent and board clerk to make additional time in their schedules to attend.

“Both of us were in the military, and we had meetings to plan meetings for the next meeting, and that’s what it looks like we’re doing here,” Cunningham said to Collick.

Cunningham also took issue with a provision titled “school division legal status,” which states that the “supervision of schools in the Isle of Wight County School division is vested in Isle of Wight County School Board.” The daily supervision of Isle of Wight County Schools, Cunningham contended, should rest with the superintendent.

Collick, however, noted that the language was taken from the Constitution of Virginia. Article VIII, Section 7, of the Virginia Constitution states the “supervision of schools in each school division shall be vested in a school board.”

Tynes said the bylaws put her in “a dark zone.”

“I felt like, am I in America or am I living in a communist country?” Tynes said.