December 9, 2022

Indiana passes bill requiring school boards to have public comment periods

The Indiana General Assembly has passed a bill requiring school boards in Indiana to provide an opportunity for public comment at every regular meeting.

The bill says school boards must allow members of the public who show up at school board meetings to provide oral public comment, though it leaves it up to boards to impose their own time limits on speakers.

House Bill 1130 also says school boards can hold their regular meetings online only if there is declared emergency and there is a particular danger or threat that would make an in-person meeting impractical or risk the health of safety of those attending.

The bill was authored by Rep. Tim O’Brien, R-Evansville, and passed the House in January, 92-1. It passed the Senate this week, 34-11, with five Republicans joining six Democrats in opposing it. The House approved the Senate version Wednesday, clearing the way for the bill to go to Gov. Eric Holcomb for his signature.

HB 1130 was introduced following a year in which school board meetings in many parts of the state became heated, with parents showing up in greater numbers than ever before to speak against school mask mandates, explicit books in school libraries, and changes in curriculum after teacher training on critical race theory.

Carmel Clay Schools in Hamilton County suspended public comment at school board meetings in August after a meeting where parents took to the microphone to draw the board’s attention to books in elementary school libraries, including some focused on introducing young children to transgenderism.

When parents staged a protest at the first public meeting with no comment period, board members walked out, and the board switched to holding virtual meetings.

The Carmel Clay school board did not resume in-person meetings that included a public comment period until January.

When asked whether she supported the passage of a state law requiring public comment, a Carmel mom, Jackie O’Keefe, who has two kids in public school, said, “One hundred percent. One hundred ten percent.”

O’Keefe said she understands why the school board wanted to take a break from public comment but it did not have anything to fear.

“There was nothing that was threatening,” she said of parent comments at meetings.

Rhonda Miller, the head of Purple for Parents Indiana, a group that’s been on the front lines of the push by parents to draw attention to issues in schools, said she was glad to see the Indiana General Assembly at least pass this bill after it abandoned its critical race theory bill Monday.

“I am thankful that they did that, because there have been cases were school boards shut people down,” Miller said.

Miller pointed to Whitley County, west of Fort Wayne, where the school board recently issued new rules restricting public comment, allowing a total of 30 minutes going forward for entire public comment period, with each person limited to three minutes.

“Schools are definitely playing games with parents on being able to address concerns,” Miller said.

HB 1130 originally said school boards had to give each person at least three minutes to speak during public comment periods, but it was amended to remove the provision and left it to school boards to set a time limit.

Sen. Fady Qaddoura, D-Indianapolis, one of the six Democrats who opposed the bill, said it seemed to go against what his Republican colleagues say about supporting local control.

“We either eliminate school boards from the state of Indiana and we become the largest school board in the state or let them do their job,” Qaddoura said on the Senate floor just before the bill passed. “This is micromanagement. We shouldn’t be in the business of micromanaging localities.”

The Indiana School Boards Association testified in support of the bill in early February.

“School boards and school communities that do it well want and seek parental participation,” said Terry Spradlin, the association’s executive director. “They want and seek community stakeholder involvement, and so we support fully an individual’s First Amendment rights to speak and be heard.”

The association, however, opposed requiring that each person be given up to three minutes to speak on each topic, saying meetings could go on for several hours if this were required.

This article was originally posted on Indiana passes bill requiring school boards to have public comment periods

Sydney Boles