Beginning next July, a new state law will require local school boards to have a public comment period during each monthly meeting. While Cobb County School District’s Board of Education already allows for public comment during meetings, district lawyer Clem Doyle said the new law may lead to changes in Cobb.
In a virtual school board training session Thursday, Doyle said the new law will allow the board chair to limit the time allotted for public comment and the number of public commenters allowed to speak about a given issue.
“That’s just an unusual thing that you see in the law where it gives that much authority to an individual,” Doyle said. “That’s going to override any policy that you might have had that said the board could set those things.”
Doyle said the new law may be targeted at school boards that do not currently have public comment at monthly meetings. The law, Senate Bill 68, was sponsored by Sen. Freddie Sims, D-Dawson.
The Cobb school board temporarily removed public comment periods from its virtual meetings due to the pandemic. Public comment returned during the August board meeting, but it was not recorded and published for public view. During the September meeting, the district recorded and published the comments after the meeting rather than airing them live.
Board Chairman Brad Wheeler said Thursday’s training was important because it is good to know what laws could impact the board in the future.
He concurred with Doyle over the purpose of the new law.
“This thing is pretty much aimed, though, at those districts around the state that do not have any public comment,” Wheeler said during the training session. “I think that’s more common than people realize. The state has stepped in and put something in place for everybody to have.”
Other Legal TrainingDuring Thursday’s training session, Doyle and his colleagues delivered a series of presentations to the board. In addition to talking about board procedures like public comment, the lawyers spoke about issues such as the Title IX education amendment, harassment reporting, gender discrimination and student discipline. Five board members, along with Superintendent Chris Ragsdale, participated in the 3-hour training session. Board members David Chastain and David Morgan were absent.
Board member Jaha Howard said many of the topics were both interesting and important for board members to understand.
“Trainings like these are crucial to our district’s success,” Howard said in a statement to the MDJ. “Federal and local policies and litigation will have far reaching consequences, so it’s important that we handle with care. I look forward to ongoing public trainings about these issues so that we can be a well-informed board and community before making critical decisions.”
The district is also tasked with responding to new Title IX regulations. Title IX, a 1972 education amendment, prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs, according to lawyer Sonya Sallis, one of Doyle’s colleagues.
Sallis told the board that the U.S. Department of Education approved new Title IX regulations in May and enacted them in August. According to Sallis, the new regulations will require educational institutions to respond quickly to allegations of sexual harassment. Schools are to provide immediate supportive measures, like counseling, to alleged victims of harassment, and they must give all involved parties a written notice of allegations.
Sallis said the new Title IX regulations, and the short notice in which they were enacted, places some challenges on K-12 school districts. To comply with the regulations, districts must train staff members, learn new procedures and possibly hire staff to fill new roles, she said.
Ragsdale said the district has a procedure in place in which students can report harassment.
The full video of Thursday’s training is available online at cobbk12.org. In addition to completing Thursday’s training, school board members will undergo further training with the Georgia Board of Education in December, according to Wheeler.