How public comments have evolved at Board of Education meetings

Since the pandemic, the tone of Board meetings has shifted into more attendance, emotion, and specifically anger being present.


Courtesy of the HCRHS website

The 2023 Hunterdon Central Board of Education

Emily Howell, Journalism student

Thirty minutes total. Five minutes at the mic. The timer will go off at four minutes to signal you have one minute remaining. Please write down your name and residency. 

Different variations of these guidelines are spoken and shared with the audience at every Board of Education meeting, just before they allow community members to approach the council and share their thoughts, opinions, criticisms, and appreciation.

When someone steps up to the microphone, they hold the complete attention of every person in the room. They can comment on any topic, and the Board will listen. This is known as the “public comment” section of Board meetings. 

Implementing a public comment section at Board meetings has been a requirement for New Jersey school districts since 2002, but individuals have only just started taking advantage of this privilege in recent years. Many have attributed this sharp spike in attendance to the COVID-19 pandemic, noticing that it was the point in time where the tone of public comment at Board meetings began to shift.  

Lisa Hughes, who is the current Board of Education president and has been on the Board since January 2018, has seen countless members of the community speak during public comment. “Prior to the pandemic, we didn’t have a lot of public comment. The Board meetings were pretty sparsely attended,” she said.

The Board meetings at this time were not broadcasted and posted on YouTube either like they are today, so it left most members of the community unaware of everything happening at Board meetings. 

However, in 2020 there was a shift in the way these meetings functioned. The Board meetings were now live-streamed and posted on YouTube.

Hughes reflects on her time with the Board. “The pandemic brought very individual issues to the surface. I think there’s been a lot of change over the past few years for families, students, parents, and for staff members,” she said. 

The pandemic caused lots of people to become more tuned in to what was going on in schools as more pressing issues came to light.

It’s your future. Ultimately, when you guys speak it’s really important.

— Dr. Jeffrey Moore, Superintendent

Dr. Jeffrey Moore, the Superintendent at Hunterdon Central talks about the issues that were mostly brought up with the Board during the pandemic. “Some of the issues that Covid presented like masking and vaccination became some of those conversations that were polarizing,” he said. 

With this rise in attendance and concerns over the pandemic, people have become increasingly more involved with sharing out during public comment in the most recent school years.

The tone at Board meetings continues to evolve. “Through Covid and after Covid it has gotten a lot sharper,” Dr. Moore said. “People aren’t talking in the middle anymore, people are out on the edges. Trying to get into the middle and find common ground is very difficult.” 

Students and parents alike are bringing up more serious and widespread concerns about abortion, homophobia, and racism to the Board. These issues obviously have lots of tension surrounding them, causing people to speak during public comment with strong emotions.

This year has brought a new wave of behavior at Board meetings, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad thing. Although this new tone can be a struggle for the Board to deal with, they welcome these emotions. Lisa Hughes describes public comment this year as, “Passionate, and the Board is there to listen to the community.” 

Along with this, we can see more students of Hunterdon Central attending Board meetings about their concerns within the school.

At the Board meeting on March 1st of this year, Emily Plunkett who is a junior at Hunterdon Central expresses her concerns about the dress code using her own personal experience.

“Right after I got humiliated and sexualized [by a student] I got told by a staff member again, ‘You should probably cover up,’ Another remark was made too ‘Maybe [if] you’d just listen to the dress code, this wouldn’t have happened, your clothes are getting smaller and smaller every day,’” she said. 

Sharing this in front of a crowd takes a lot of courage, especially from a student. But, Emily Plunkett is not alone when sharing a personal story like this at a Board meeting. It is becoming more and more common for students to take matters into their own hands and speak up during public comment. 

Dr. Moore mentioned the increasing number of students approaching the Board. “When students come out and speak, you all are really good at that. But I hate that you’ve gotten good at that because you’ve come out to advocate for yourselves when you feel like nobody else is,” he said.

Although it may be true that students feel like they have to advocate for themselves and speak up, the Board welcomes and even encourages it.

“We love having students at our Board meetings. We’re super proud of our students who have the confidence and strength to come and speak, it’s not easy,” said Lisa Hughes. 

Similarly, Dr. Moore shares his opinions on students speaking during public comment. “It’s your future, ultimately when you guys speak it’s really important,” he said. 

The future of public comment at Board meetings continues to push this idea of welcoming more student input. A recent bill passed in New Jersey has required a “student representative” to be present at all Board of Education meetings and act as a voice for the students. 

 According to Lisa Hughes, the members of the Board didn’t just want to do the bare minimum with this new requirement. They are planning to implement a “mini-board” next school year consisting of students from different clubs, affinity groups, sports, and other Central activities to help show representation from different groups around Central and be associated with the Board. The overall goal of this project is to incorporate more student feedback into policies and other decisions the Board makes. 

The future of public comment at Board meetings remains mostly a mystery. But for now, we can tell that there is an effort for each student’s voice to be heard. And that the Board will continue to encourage parents, students, teachers, and other members of the community to exercise their privilege and speak at these meetings.