Prince William School Board meeting gets raucous; plans move forward to limit public comment

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Prince William School Board Chair Babur Lateef plans to move forward with a vote on new public comment rules after Wednesday night’s board meeting grew tense with speakers attacking that plan as well as the school system’s mask mandate.

A little over a dozen speakers voiced anger at the school board for the proposed changes, which would cap public comment at two 30-minute sessions per meeting and ban signs that aren’t cleared by the division.

Lateef said the plan would create more avenues for people to give comments, like the ability for those who can’t attend meetings to upload videos to be played during the meeting. Technically, he said, it would also extend the in-meeting comment period by allowing for 30 speakers to talk for two minutes. Current rules call for a single 30-minute comment period that the board technically has to extend, though doing so has been just a formality when there are more speakers beyond the 30-minute period.

But Lateef also said that the proposed changes are, at least to some degree, a response to the chaos that seized the Loudoun County School Board last spring, with meetings disrupted by protestors angry about critical race theory and the rights of transgender students.

“I don’t want what happened in Loudoun County to happen here, it’s just chaos,” Lateef told InsideNoVa.

On Wednesday night, the Prince William board got a small taste, with speeches criticizing the proposed comment policy, critical race theory and masking in schools. Though the division made its own decision before the school year to mandate masks for students in county school buildings, Gov. Ralph Northam’s office also issued its own mask mandate for K-12 schools.

One speaker from Gainesville said the proposed changes to public comment were meant to shut down dissent.

“The fact that this decision is being based on what happened in Loudoun County is unjust and unfair. We as parents and taxpayers of Prince William County should have the right to speak our minds about what is taught to our children, and your actions should revolve around what happens in our county, not Loudoun,” she said.

A junior at Colgan High School also addressed the board, first turning to the crowd and shouting to applause “How many of you are against CRT?”

After a brief exchange with Lateef over keeping order in the room, the student spoke against the proposed rule changes.

“Many citizens in this community care deeply about what happens to our schools, but with the hectic schedules that go along with this area, they might not be able to sign up in the short window of time that’s established,” the student said.

The policy, if enacted, would make speakers sign up online or over the phone ahead of time. If all 30 slots were not filled, there would be first-come sign-up at the start of the meeting.

All told, almost 20 speakers addressed the board Wednesday night. At the same meeting, Superintendent LaTanya McDade announced that enrollment at the start of the school year had surpassed 90,000 students once again after a decline last year.

The crowd was raucous at times, but nobody was removed for being disruptive. Most speakers were unmasked throughout the meeting, despite the mask mandate extending to all county school buildings.

Lateef said the board wasn’t interested in trying to enforce masking at meetings and having people removed for non-compliance.

“I think a lot of people just wanted a YouTube moment of them getting dragged out,” he told InsideNoVa.

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