Around 2:30 p.m. last Tuesday, Broward County School Board Chair Abby Freedman faced an auditorium full of empty chairs, reading through a list of 17 scheduled speakers — “ Terry Preuss, Liliana Ruido, Julie Ganas, Joan King,” she said.
No one was there: On the school board’s written agenda for the meeting, public comment wasn’t supposed to begin for more than two hours, at 5 p.m.
School districts throughout South Florida have come under fire for the way they handle public input at school board meetings. Last summer, Miami-Dade changed a policy forbidding speakers from mentioning district officials and board members by name. Critics in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties have alleged that employees and parents who sign up to speak publicly face retaliation from district staff. Both districts have described phone calls and in-person meetings with would-be speakers as proactive measures to address their concerns as soon as they are raised.
For months, teachers and parents in Broward County complained they couldn’t get off work in time to speak at school board meetings because public comment came at noon. In October, the school district responded by experimenting with hearing speakers at 5 p.m.
“It was phenomenal because teachers showed up and spoke, parents showed up and spoke,” said parent Youssef Wardani.
Wardani was on the list to speak at 5 last week, but he says district staff called him just before 2 p.m. — less than a half-hour before the meeting was over — to say that it might adjourn early.
“Even if I took off immediately after she called me, I would never have made it,” he said.
School board meetings often run well into the evening. In February, the school board recessed for more than an hour to allow public comment to take place as scheduled before resuming to finish the agenda. Jeff Moquin, chief of staff for the district superintendent, says that “lesson learned” prompted the district to make a change so that speakers are heard at 5 p.m. or at the end of the meeting, whichever comes first.
“It’s very important to note that the school board publishes notice of all their meetings and when public comment will have the opportunity to be had,” he said. That notice appeared in the Miami Herald, not the Broward-based Sun Sentinel. Even so, on the school district’s own website, the agenda says, simply, 5 p.m.