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Inside the school board: part two

Dan Gustafson

Dan Gustafson

By Dan Gustafson

Last week, we examined the role of the school board and its members. Now, let’s attend a meeting.

School board meetings customarily begin at 6:30 p.m. on the second Tuesday of each month. That’s the “open session” to which the public is invited.

Why does the board meet in closed session?

Our meeting actually is called to order 45 to 90 minutes earlier for “closed session,” not open to the public because we discuss confidential items like personnel, pending litigation, labor or property negotiations and disciplinary matters. Before we recess to closed session, we do provide an opportunity for public comment, but only about items on the closed session agenda.

At 6:30 p.m., the board president reconvenes the meeting and reports any action taken in closed session. We then move quickly to approve prior meeting minutes and the evening’s agenda, and to recognize the “students of the year” from a particular school, one of the best parts of our jobs.

How many times can members of the public comment?

That brings us to the second invitation for public comment of the evening, this time regarding any school-related topic not on our meeting’s regular agenda. Speakers may bring issues to the board’s attention, but the board cannot comment because the public has not been given proper notice of this topic. Comments are limited to three minutes.

Why do you limit individuals to three minutes of comment?

I once asked a governance expert at the California School Board Association that question. The time limit moves the meeting along, but there’s another reason. She explained that a school board meeting is the trustees’ meeting because, due to the Brown Act, by law they can never discuss matters as a group unless they are in open session.

For the rest of the month, anyone in the community can talk to an individual trustee, she said, but a trustee can only talk with one other trustee about a topic they might vote on. Why? Since a quorum consists of three trustees, and that number of votes can decide an issue, only two trustees may talk in private legally. All business must be done in public so deliberations are transparent.

What if a member of the public wants to speak on another agenda item? 

The president will solicit public comment on agenda items later, as each item is considered. If the issue is particularly important or controversial, there may be several speakers. Each is limited to three minutes.

The president may also ask subsequent speakers not to repeat a comment that has already been made or may request a show of hands from those in agreement with a particular point.

A rule of thumb for public comment on an issue is 20 minutes. If unheard speakers are still lined up, the president may extend that time.

Why aren’t the trustees limited to three minutes?

As I mentioned, it’s their meeting, and they need to absorb public comment and then discuss the agenda item at length until they all have their say. Please remember, it’s their only opportunity to do so. There’s no smoke-filled back room; they are trying to reach a good decision in public.

Are there rules governing the trustees’ interactions?

Beyond the Brown Act, which applies to meetings of all public bodies, our board has guidelines for its behavior, called “norms.” These were written and agreed upon by the board. They can be found at svusdca.org.

The most powerful norm, for me, is that we should model behavior for our children. That has led me to bite my tongue on occasion, and I’m grateful. I do respect and like my colleagues on the board, and I hope that is always evident.

Who else speaks at the meetings?

We may hear reports from representatives of the teachers and classified employees unions, the English learners advisory group, the superintendent and members of her staff, and our student trustee. The trustees also report on what they have been doing or learning about.

Why are there no discussions of student suspensions or expulsions?

Confidentiality. The board does receive packets with background information prior to our meeting. We have time to ponder and ask questions, and we can also discuss expulsions in closed session.

What is the consent agenda?

We lump together a number of routine matters and vote on them in one motion to handle them more efficiently. If a trustee wants to discuss a particular item, they can request its placement on the regular agenda.

I hope I’ve shed a little light on board meetings. Please email any questions you may have to me at dangustafson@me.com, and I’ll attempt to answer them. As we routinely remind our constituents, I can’t speak for the board as a whole, only for myself. Thank you.