Flexible time limits for public input at board meetings

The opportunity for members of the public to address the governing board during board meetings is an essential and legally required part of school district governance. Members of the public may speak to any item on the agenda before or during consideration of the item, including closed session and consent items, and to items not on the agenda but within the subject matter jurisdiction of the board. In special meetings, which include emergency meetings, members of the public are able to address the board only regarding agenda items.

Boards are authorized to provide reasonable limits on the amount of time allocated for public testimony on a particular issue and for each individual speaker. Optional language in CSBA’s sample Board Bylaw 9323 – Meeting Conduct designates three minutes per speaker and 20 minutes per agenda or non-agenda item. Such reasonable regulation must ensure that the intent of allowing the public an adequate opportunity to speak to the board is carried out. Thus, while boards may provide general guidance about the total amount of time permitted per issue and speaker, circumstances may necessitate adjustments in order to provide full opportunity for public input.

For example, if 100 people wish to speak on an issue, the board president may, with board consent, increase the total amount of time to speak on the issue from 20 minutes to one hour, and decrease the amount of time per person from three minutes to two minutes. It is helpful to request that members of the public not repeat what others have said, reminding them that if each person does not use the allotted time, the board will be able to hear from more people.

Additionally, boards need to be cognizant that any adjustment to allotted time for public comment be done equitably to allow for diversity of viewpoints. Boards may also consider allocation of time when there are many public speakers, such as allowing students to address the board first. While many Brown Act open meeting law requirements have been suspended due to COVID-19 pursuant to executive orders from Gov. Gavin Newsom, the ability to provide public comments has remained sacrosanct.

Executive Order N-29-20 authorizes local educational agencies that hold board meetings via teleconference to receive public comments by telephone or otherwise electronically. LEAs may request that members of the public email their comments either before or during the meeting, with an expectation that the comments will be read aloud by a board or staff member during the meeting. Regardless of the method of public input during this time, the board retains the right to “reasonably” control the time spent on public input. However, these unique circumstances also require heightened sensitivity to the public’s need to speak to the board.

“The goal is to continue to provide ample opportunity for public involvement in district decision making while protecting the health and safety of the public during this pandemic,” said Bob Tuerck, CSBA’s assistant executive director, Policy and Governance Technology Services. “It is especially critical at this time that students, parents/guardians, and members of the public are informed about changes in district operations, have an opportunity to ask questions, and give input to the board on how proposed actions will affect them.”

Through thick and thin, board members should remain sensitive to the purpose of public comments at board meetings and remain flexible and adaptive in order to provide adequate opportunity for members of the public to speak.