State school board debates public input

Advocate file photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) President Chas Roemer testifies in front of the Senate Committee on Education in this May 2013 file photo.
Advocate file photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) President Chas Roemer testifies in front of the Senate Committee on Education in this May 2013 file photo.

Louisiana’s top school board Monday wrestled with how much input taxpayers should have on public school issues.

Chas Roemer, president of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the panel routinely gives public speakers leeway despite rules that are supposed to limit comments to three minutes.

“We have never cut them off,” Roemer said during a BESE retreat. “We have never stopped discussions, and I am not suggesting we do so now.”

But the issue, which is set for discussion again on Tuesday in a BESE committee, is sparking questions among some groups and individuals who appear before the board.

BESE sets policies for about 700,000 public school students statewide.

Les Landon, a spokesman for the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, said his group is concerned about the requirement that public comment cards are supposed to be submitted to BESE staff members at least five minutes before the meeting.

Landon noted that committees of the board are allowed to start up to 30 minutes before the announced time, which could complicate efforts to abide by the five-minute rule.

Lottie Beebe, a BESE member who lives in Breaux Bridge, said parts of the public already feel stifled when it comes to offering comments.

“The public is already saying they feel like they are censored,” Beebe said.

BESE member Carolyn Hill, of Baton Rouge, said there are times when she felt “totally disrespected” because taxpayer comments were curtailed before she had made up her mind on an issue.

“If there are 800 of them, we have to listen to each and every one of them,” Hill said.

BESE meetings typically cover a two-day period.

The first day is generally limited to committees, which thrash out issues and make recommendations to the full board for action the following day.

The gatherings sometimes spark large turnouts for an auditorium in a state office building.

One recent meeting lasted until around 10 p.m., in part because dozens of public speakers meant the committees went well beyond planned times.

BESE member Holly Boffy, who lives in Youngsville, said lengthy hearings pose hardships for the public. Boffy noted that taxpayers may wait for hours to testify, often unsure how many people are ahead of them.

BESE rules say public comments are supposed to be limited to a maximum of three minutes per person.

Those representing groups are allowed five minutes.

However, committee chairmen are allowed latitude on how that works, which means some BESE members are more strict about speaking time than others.

Officials of some education groups said they are concerned that BESE is about to start enforcing the rule that members of the public have to submit comment cards at least five minutes before the meeting.

Dan Garrett III, an attorney who often appears on behalf of local school boards, said BESE committee debates sometimes spark interest in testifying.

“This seems designed solely to stifle public comment,” Garrett said in an email.

Roemer, who lives in Baton Rouge, said BESE’s policy is more generous than time allowed before other bodies.

“Go to the Legislature and you are given 30 seconds,” he said.