HUNT COLUMN: To speak or not to speak

Published 8:30 am Wednesday, July 21, 2021

By Cathy Hunt
Troup County Board Chairwoman

Most folks would probably agree that local school districts should have a certain amount, or quite a lot, of autonomy in determining the policies and procedures that work best for them in their communities. However, that’s never prevented federal and state government from handing down well-meaning legislation every year.

Educators will long remember the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which had strong bipartisan support, became law in 2002, and lasted for 13 years. It required much accountability under strict standards, which caused systems to chafe under its weight. Yet that accountability also compelled underachieving schools to step up their games.

Teachers can resent heavy-handed legislation passed by entities populated by few professional educators, representatives who have no idea what it’s like to work in public schools. In some cases, mandates come with no additional funding with which to implement them. But perhaps we can agree that there are times when higher powers need to get involved to ensure that children are well provided for.

The Georgia General Assembly deals annually with numerous bills related to education, which makes sense considering what a large portion of the state budget goes to public schools and personnel. Local systems have to stay abreast of bills becoming law and then make or adapt policies to incorporate them.

One new law as of July 1 is House Bill 146, which extends paid parental leave after a qualifying life event, including birth, adoption, or fostering. In Troup County, we approved new policy GARHB at our July meeting, with detailed language meeting the requirements of updated Georgia Code.

Another updated Code (via Senate Bill 68) causing much discussion within systems across Georgia requires public comment opportunity at monthly board meetings, with the admonition that the system “shall not require notice by an individual more than 24 hours prior to the meeting as a condition of addressing the local board during such public comment period.” We were ahead of the game here, having updated our policy in 2019. Previously, public participation in board meetings had to be requested the week before and was denied more often than not. Our board understands the importance of public input and has made it possible for citizens to sign up to speak immediately preceding both the monthly work session and business meeting.

The new code does allow for local boards to set parameters. Ours are detailed in Board Policy BCBI (see website). It’s important to remember that our meetings are meetings of the board in public, not public meetings where questions and answers are the norm.

Other systems in Georgia are responding to the new code in various ways, from adding something new to the agenda to fine-tuning existing policies. Gwinnett County falls into the latter category. They have had to put limits on speakers after 2021 meetings have seen nearly 80 speakers and adjournments after midnight. That leaves very little time and energy for dealing with the rest of lengthy agendas!

Public speakers here often leave after their portion of the agenda. We wish they would stay! We welcome and encourage visitors at our meetings so the community can hear about everything happening in Troup County Schools.