Johnson pushes for more time for public

Eddie Johnson

Eddie Johnson

COVINGTON -- Meetings of the Newton County Board of Education aren't expected to change -- at least for now. But one board member is still pushing for more public participation.

In March, school board member Eddie Johnson proposed that the board should allow more time for public comments and questions at the end of each meeting.

The board currently sets aside time near the beginning of both its monthly work session and regular session meetings for the public to comment about items either on the agenda or not on the agenda.

According to board policy, up to 15 minutes of each meeting are designated for public participation. A maximum time of five minutes is allotted to a single individual or a single topic based on the number of requests. The board members are not required to address any questions and generally don't respond to individuals sharing their comments during the meetings.

When the board failed to put a discussion item on its agenda at its last meeting, Johnson brought up the topic again.

"I think we should make some changes," he said.

However, fellow board member Shakila Henderson Baker said that she wasn't in favor of such a change, since the point of the meetings is to carry out the business of the school system.

"You make it not a meeting (but a) public debate," she said.

Instead, she would rather see the board look into holding quarterly forums for the public.

"I think we give everybody an opportunity to express their interests," school board Chair Almond Turner said, adding that in the past, the board has allowed for extra time for sensitive issues. "We're doing everything we can to accommodate them."

Additionally, Turner said that Newton County School System Superintendent Gary Mathews often responds to residents' concerns after meetings and also holds community forums from time to time.

"You should give the public every opportunity," Johnson said. "We've got to be more sensitive and let the public participate."

Baker said that she believes the board could get more participation at a special public forum with a question and answer period.

"Logistically (the change) seems burdensome," added board member Jeff Meadors. "I like to think we strive for some sense of formality, and it would become informal and unofficial in some sense (if it changed)."

After a poll of the board members, all but Johnson agreed that there shouldn't be a change in the format of meetings but instead introduce a public forum in the future.

"I don't agree with it, but I'll follow the procedure," Johnson said after the vote. "It's easy to say no. You can continue to not let the public participate ... but why deprive a parent who wants to ask a question at a public meeting?"

Baker responded that she answers questions from residents after meetings and when they call and email her at other times.

The city of Covington currently sets aside time at the beginning and the end of its bimonthly meetings for the public to address the City Council about issues not on the agenda; the council also sets aside time during the meeting to address residents' concerns for items on the agenda. The Newton County Board of Commissioners allows for public participation at the end of its meetings.