NORTHAMPTON — During its regular meeting on Jan. 11, the Northampton School Committee made some adjustments to its public comment rules.

Instead of allotting only 15 minutes total for the public to address the committee during public comment time, the School Committee unanimously decided to amend the language so that the public has 90 minutes to address the committee during the public comment portion of meetings.

The committee decided to maintain the rule that individuals have up to three minutes to say their piece during public comment and they also added language that says anyone with a speech-related disability has six minutes to talk during public comment.

Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra, who chairs the committee, said the 15-minute public comment rule was “problematic” because it was only allowing a brief amount of time for people to speak on topics that may garner a lot of interest.

“It’s not an effective rule,” Sciarra said. “Fifteen minutes is not a reasonable amount of time.”

Before voting, the committee considered adjusting the language so that individuals would receive two minutes instead of three, but the majority of members decided that two minutes for an individual was not a sufficient amount of time to speak on a topic.

“I think two minutes is a short amount of time and a lot of people, parents and students feel very passionately about some of the stuff we’re talking about,” said Ward 5 committee member Ann Hennessey.

The changes to the School Committee public comment rules come after the City Council scrutinized their own public comment rules over the past several weeks following an incident during a Nov. 2 regular meeting where a group of “Zoom bombers” used their allotted two minutes for public comment to spew offensive comments.

During this particular public comment session, several people over Zoom used fake names and kept their cameras off while making racist and antisemitic remarks.

The City Council eventually took a 10-minute break to regroup and determine the course of action in response to the revolting comments. When they returned to the meeting, the council decided to suspend the remainder of the public comment session.

They also eventually spearheaded a special meeting to further discuss any possible amendments they could make to prevent that type of situation happening again.

In the end, councilors approved an updated version of the council rules earlier this month with language that says councilors may respond to public comments after the public comment period has ended. The language also states that the public comment portion may be extended or reduced during committee hearings.

The City Council currently allots 90 minutes for the public comment period and up to two minutes for an individual.

The School Committee approved their own Rules of Procedure with the public comment amendments and also referred the document to the Rules and Policy Subcommittee for further scrutiy.

Gwen Agna reelected vice chair

Also during the meeting, Gwen Agna was reelected as vice chair of the School Committee after serving in that position this past term.

Agna has been an educator for over 45 years and most recently served as the principal for Jackson Street Elementary School for 24 years.

She served as the Northampton Public Schools’ early childhood and civil rights coordinator in the late 80s and 90s, where she worked to incorporate social justice, anti-bias and anti-racism in all aspects of classroom practice. She was elected to School Committee in 2021.

“My time as an employee of the schools gave me the experience of many aspects of the running of the schools in Northampton, the ins and outs of curriculum, hiring, budget policies, engagement with caregivers in the larger community, providing professional development support and leadership for the faculty and staff, and most importantly, confirmation that it is the children who guide us and for whom we always have to keep at the forefront of our thinking and our actions,” Agna said in a statement during the meeting. “I’ve been honored to be in situations in which I can offer what I hope to be wise and educationally sound counsel when appropriate.”

Ward 3 member Emily Serafy-Cox was also nominated for the position by Ward 4 member Michael Stein.

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