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Public input policy may change

LARGO — Pinellas County School Board members are moving forward with a plan to change the time allotted for public comments from the beginning of their meetings to the end, despite initial concerns that it would discourage public participation.

Board members voted 6-0 Tuesday to discuss it at their Jan. 21 workshop. If adopted, open public comments would move to the end of the 10:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Tuesday meetings, as had been done previously. Another change would no longer require speakers to provide their telephone number and address when signing up to speak.

Currently, members of the public may speak for up to three minutes on any topic not covered on the school board agenda during a half-hour before the meeting starts. If there are more speakers than the half-hour allows, they are bumped to the end of the meeting, which rarely happens, school district attorney David Koperski said.

Members of the public who would like to address specific items on the agenda may still do so during the regular business meeting, Koperski said.

Most public speakers come to speak directly to something the board is voting on, board member Terry Krassner said. Allowing others to speak before the meeting was intended to be temporary to see if it increased participation. On Tuesday, six people spoke before the meeting started and took about 20 minutes. Having comments at the end would make the meetings more efficient, Krassner said.

John Ciani, a recently retired reporter from Ridgecrest, Calif., newspaper The Daily Independent, used his time to question the costs of renovation projects at Seminole High School. The change wouldn’t deter him from speaking, he said.

“I have a vested interest. I have kids in the school system so I would show up either way if it’s something really important to me,” Ciani said. “That’s the way it’s typically done, with the public comments at the end, and that’s the way our city councils do it, so why should this be any different?”

Board member Rene Flowers was hesitant about the change when the idea emerged at board’s previous workshop. With multiple presentations and agenda items to get through, speakers might have to wait several hours, she said. Conversely, Grego said the change could also attract more parents who get out of work at 5 p.m. or can’t get to morning meetings early enough to make public comments. Grego said the public still will have ample time to discuss issues with the board, and he has yet to receive any complaints about the change.

“In the past these board meetings were so long, some of them lasted until 11 at night, and since we’ve invested in extensive workshops where we can have our conversations, these should be professional board meetings where they only last a few hours,” Grego said.

Also at Tuesday’s meeting:

Grego withdrew his appointment of Kristy Cantu, principal of Sutherland Elementary in Palm Harbor, to become the school district’s new director of professional development. Cantu had “family issues” that caused her to withdraw, though she will remain principal at Sutherland, Grego said. School district officials will look at other alternatives to see if those duties can be fulfilled by other existing employees, Grego said.

Officials learned The Jacobson Culinary Arts Academy at Tarpon Springs High School earned accreditation from the American Culinary Federation after last week’s visit. Tarpon Springs is the fifth high school in Florida to earn the accreditation from the largest professional chefs organization in North America.

Board members voted to give Kim Black, president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, and Nelly Henjes, president of the Pinellas Educational Support Professionals Association, approval to remain in their positions until June 30, when members elect their presidents for next school year. Term limits will prevent Black, who has served as union president for seven years, from seeking re-election. The teachers union will hold an election in March.

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