Public no longer will have the last word at Lafayette School Board meetings — freewheeling final comments ‘off the table’ _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BRYAN TUCK -- Lafayette School Board President Tommy Angelle.

People who attend Lafayette Parish School Board meetings will now have to reserve their 2 cents’ worth for only those issues that are up for a board vote — a break from the tradition of allowing the public to address the board on any topic after it concludes its business.

Wednesday’s board meeting was the last for the last word from the public.

School Board President Tommy Angelle said public comment is still allowed prior to board votes, which fulfills state law, but additional comments typically afforded on any issue at the end of the meeting is now off the table.

“Know in the future we’ll restrict public comment to items on the agenda,” Angelle said.

On Thursday, Angelle said the change was his decision and is based on the advice of the board’s attorneys.

“The board meeting is, by state law is, regulated to the items on the agenda,” he said. “At the end of the meeting, anyone could comment about anything, and that’s a potential problem, with people saying things we don’t know anything about or unrelated to the agenda. It’s too open-ended.”

Ella Arsement regularly attends School Board meetings and frequently shares her opinions during the meeting prior to board votes and also during the final public comment portion of the meeting.

She said Angelle’s decision came as a surprise, even though she understands she’ll still have an opportunity to comment prior to the board making any decisions.

“I was extremely shocked because they’re saying that they want to have a transparent board,” she said. “If they do not give the public a chance to voice their concerns, when are we going to have an opportunity?”

School Board members’ email addresses and phone numbers are posted on the school system’s website — which Angelle mentioned at Wednesday’s meeting.

Arsement said Thursday that while School Board members are available for discussion, it’s not the same as addressing the full board during an open meeting.

“When you put your comments out there and the whole public hears, it’s kind of hard for them to ignore it,” she said.

Often, the comments at the end of the meeting range from platitudes for board members on actions taken during the meeting or grievances over those same decisions or upcoming ones.

In the past, parents also have used the time to air concerns when they believe school staff hasn’t properly addressed their issue. In those cases, board members have referred them to the appropriate staff member or asked them to speak directly to either their board member or a staff member following the meeting.

Public comments at Wednesday’s meeting ranged from parents who voiced concerns about proposed attendance zone changes up for a board vote on June 17 to an employee who took the time to thank the board and administration for his employment in the past three years. The board voted Wednesday to eliminate the position of health and wellness director held by Bradley Cruice, who told the board the experience afforded him several professional and personal growth opportunities.

Some use the public comment time to share institutional knowledge with the School Board. During Wednesday’s meeting, the board decided to move forward with plans to build a new high school in the Youngsville area. It also discussed the need for a feasibility study to replace Lafayette High School, which enrolls more than 2,000 students.

Retired educator and former School Board member Melinda Mangham reminded board members, the majority of whom started their first term in January, that a former board commissioned a master plan for facilities a few years ago “that is on a shelf somewhere.”

The board has made several changes in the interest of efficiency, though Angelle said that wasn’t the intent behind cutting the public comment section at the end of the meetings.

Earlier this year, the board created committees to vet staff proposals, and in those committee meetings, there are no time restrictions on public comment. Committee members frequently have dialogues with the public. Angelle said those committee meeting structures will go unchanged.

The board also is considering a new meeting management software system designed to help improve the flow of the meeting. The current software system frequently lags, stalling the progress of the meeting, particularly the voting process.

Another change that could be approved on June 17 involves changing meeting dates to the first and second Wednesdays of the month, rather than the current first and third Wednesdays of the month. The executive committee proposed that change to shorten the wait for action on staff recommendations.

Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.