EVANSVILLE — Public comments will be allowed again during Evansville Vanderburgh School Corp. board meetings starting July 1.

That is when a law takes effect requiring all Indiana school boards to allow public comments in meetings. That includes meetings held virtually, something that has become more common during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The law only requires school boards to allow comments on agenda topics, said Julie Slavens, senior counsel for the Indiana School Boards Association. 

"You don't have to allow an open mic or comments on any topic," she said.

Legislators proposed the law after some school boards in the state ended or restricted public comments to avoid confrontations over heated issues such as curriculums or COVID-19 restrictions, Slavens said.

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The EVSC board will vote on its new public comment policy at its next meeting, at 5:30 p.m. June 27.

EVSC school board "town halls"

In May 2021, the EVSC board adopted a "town hall" format in lieu of public comments during meetings. For 30 minutes before every regular school board meeting, citizens who sign up in advance could come speak to school board members and Superintendent David Smith.

"That will continue. It's been nothing but a positive," said Chris Kiefer, school board president. "We get a lot of input and we can give input back and have a conversation."

However, he said the school board also will now include a time during meetings for the public to speak about items on the agenda.

"It will happen at the beginning of meetings," Kiefer said.   

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Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb signed the bill shortly after it was approved by the Indiana General Assembly in March.

New law means public can speak at most meetings

School board meetings are public, but state law previously did not require boards to allow the public to speak at most meetings.

"It's not going to be a big change, it's just now they have to do it rather than having the option to do it," Slavens said.

While the new law requires boards make time for comments at all meetings, it also allows school boards to set "reasonable rules" for governing comments and keeping meeting orderly. It also mandates school boards take spoken comments on topics before any final actions are taken.

Slavens said "reasonable rules" could include ordering speakers so that people who live in the school district or have children in school are allowed to speak first.

She said the law also means that boards that advertised work sessions held outside of regular meetings now have to be open to the public and to comments.

"I think the intent of the law is for the public to have a chance to comment on the agenda," Smith said.

He said the public will be able to sign up online to speak about specific agenda items at meetings, similar to the town halls. Up to 30 minutes will be allotted with two minutes per speaker. 

Smith said the town halls will provide a continued forum for people to speak with the school board about concerns that are not on a meeting agenda.

"I think if boards are better about such other means of communicating with people, that would reduce some of the comments at board meetings," Slavens said. "People just want to be heard."

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