VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — After several contentious marathon school board meetings in Virginia Beach this summer, the board is looking to cut back on the amount of time speakers have to make their point.
In a special called meeting Wednesday afternoon, the revised speaker time limit was just one of several proposals forwarded to their policy making committee for consideration. The other proposals include doing away with separate on-agenda and non-agenda public comment periods and pausing public comment to move onto action items by a certain time in the meeting.
Chair Carolyn Rye said the ultimate goal was to find ways to better run the meeting to respect the time of the community and school leadership. In several instances, the board wouldn’t get to their voting session in the meeting until 11 p.m. or later because the number of speakers stretched to nearly 100.
“We’re just trying to be realistic what’s the proper time to end a meeting and still do the responsible thing and welcome the public input and do the business of the board,” Rye said.
Meetings have also become delayed because of confrontations between Rye and speakers that deviate from agenda items.
Two weeks ago, Rye and division Chief of Staff Dr. Donald Robertson issued formal warnings to two women about their behavior during meetings.
The warnings told the two women that they would be banned from coming to future meetings if their behavior continued. One is accused of yelling as others spoke at the podium. The other was accused of making profane gestures and comments during the public comment period.
The issues came about during meetings where the board discussed whether masks should be mandatory in Virginia Beach school facilities — an issue that’s proved contentious throughout the country as students return to school.
Annie Palumbo, one of the parents who received a letter, agreed with the move to do away with separate on-agenda and off-agenda public speaking sessions. She is often stopped by Rye when she speaks.
“Yeah that I do, like, I do agree with that because that’s where the argument is most of the time, is that parents keep getting told they’re off-topic. Why not just combine it all?” Palumbo said.
However, at the same time, she criticized efforts to limit the amount of time a speaker can address the board as efforts to “silence” those who criticize them.
“They try to silence me and scare me with a letter, and it’s not going to work because the more they turn down the volume, the more I turn it up, and my gas pedal is to the floor right now,” Palumbo said.
However, several board members pushed back on the accusation.
“We are not trying to limit the speakers. We are just trying to be considerate, of all other business that we have to do as a board and get it out in an appropriate time,” Sharon Felton, Virginia Beach School Board’s beach district representative said.
At-large board member Victoria Manning was unable to attend the special meeting Wednesday due to family matters, but wrote a letter about her beliefs on the issue.
She said board members should practice what they preach and respect both the public and one another.
“If the Chair and Vice-Chair want to shut citizens down for harsh speech and being off agenda then they should consider doing the same when Board members do it. The law protects a citizen’s rights to disagree, be angry and to offer harsh speech to their elected officials. School Board leadership never sent “warning letters” to members of the public when harsh speech was levied at me, it is only done when it is pointed at members of the majority,” Manning wrote in the letter.
Manning also condemned the recent move to send warning letters to members of the public. She added that one of the letters included statements that a woman allegedly said, but were “absolutely false.”
“The Chair did not send warning letters to other Board members when they acted inappropriately in meetings and the citizens of this great City certainly should not be “reprimanded” by their elected representatives,” Manning said.
Rye stood by her decision.
“There is a responsibility about decorum and the conduct of meetings,” Rye said. “These matters are not taken lightly, and we hope to not have this issue moving forward, frankly.”