People looking to voice their concerns to the Bakersfield City School District Board of Education could soon face new limitations.
The board is considering approving revisions to its policy on meeting conduct that would reduce the time to speak from five minutes to three minutes during the public comment period.
“This change wouldn’t prevent people from speaking," said Board President Lillian Tafoya. "They would just need to be more succinct in their comments.”
Since the board allows only 15 minutes per topic, Tafoya said the new policy would allow more community members address the board on a given topic of high interest. The new policy is in line with protocols at other school districts. For example, the Panama-Buena Vista Union School District and the Kern High School District both have three-minute time limits.
The time limit would not apply to non-English speakers, who would be given twice the allotted time when using a translator.
State law allows for legislative bodies to adopt “reasonable regulations” limiting individual or total comment time, as long as it is not an attempt to prohibit public criticism.
Other revisions being considered include prohibiting an individual speaker from giving part of their allotted time to another speaker and giving the board president authority to revoke speaking privileges for conduct that threatens the safety of anyone at a meeting.
The board considered approving the policy changes at its Jan. 22 meeting. However, the item was pulled by district administration for additional research and input after community members complained about the proposed change.
Steven Comstock Jr., president of the Bakersfield Elementary Teachers Association and a frequent speaker at the board meetings, is concerned that the district is trying to limit free speech.
“A board’s primary job besides overseeing the district is to basically be open to conversation with the people that elected them,” he said. “Cutting back on the public’s ability to communicate with them is going completely against that.”
Comstock said there aren’t many commenters at meetings. On a rare occasion last year there was a hot-button issue regarding the removal of trees at Voorhies Elementary. Comstock said he recalls Tafoya limiting comments to four minutes at the meeting.
He said everyone who wanted to speak got to speak and that he feels that was a fair limit.
Tafoya acknowledged that the Voorhies tree issue was the only time in the past year where there were a lot of people looking to speak on the same topic.
“We always try to listen to our community. We always want to hear what our stakeholders have to say,” Tafoya said. “We did want to honor people’s concerns and take more time for further analysis.”
Tafoya said the revised policy is expected to return to the board for consideration at a future meeting, possibly as soon as the upcoming Feb. 26 meeting.
Comstock said his real concern about the changes is the extra authority Tafoya would have. He believes it could be taken advantage of to curb criticism by claiming a speaker to be threatening or disruptive when that is not truly the case.
“If somebody becomes aggressive, the board already has the ability to shut them down. There are security personnel that can already remove them from the premises,” he said. “So you have to ask: What is the real driving force behind this?”
According to the revised policy document presented at the January meeting, the board would be allowed to “remove disruptive individuals” but does not provide any specifics on what kind of behavior would be considered disruptive or whether there are any limitations.
Tafoya said she doesn't expect that kind of removal to happen often. She said it's more targeted for extreme cases such as if someone is attempting to provide confidential personnel information or if someone is trying to physically assault a person at a meeting.
"We're not trying to squelch anyone," she said. "We're just trying to be more proactive. We don't anticipate these things happening, but we want to be prepared."
Tafoya said she realizes there is some community opposition to the policy changes.
“Any time there’s change, there’s a little bit of resistance. Change is hard for people,” she said. “We will try to make the best decision based on what we know.”