Sonoma Valley Unified School board struggles with public comment policy
Community members’ concerns with providing input at board meetings was a focal point at the Sonoma Valley Unified School District’s Board of Trustees meetings on Tuesday, with all board members present expressing a need to improve the situation.
In accordance with California Government Code Section 54953.3, members of the public may attend a board meeting in person or virtually and are not required to register their name or provide other information. Members of the public are permitted to make public comments both in-person and via video conference.
The SVUSD policy, which was revised this month, stipulates that speakers, both in person and virtually, “shall file a speaker card indicating their name and the agenda item they wish to address and present it to the executive assistant to the superintendent before the beginning of the meeting.”
Speaker cards are accepted up until the meeting begins, but for the last two meetings, only a few people who were at the meetings in person turned in cards and no one watching the meetings on Zoom submitted cards.
“I think the intention was to figure out a way to manage and give equal or equitable access to the people who are attending online and to make sure we are fielding all this, but the fact that we haven’t had any requests for public comment [via video conference] concerns me,” said Trustee Anne Ching.
She said that the card system makes it very difficult for many people to provide public comment. Ching is a parent who has been attending board meetings since the early 2000s, well before the system was implemented.
“I would come to the meetings only for one particular issue,” she said. “I would watch TV to see when the discussion got to LCAP [Local Control and Accountability Plan] or something else and then I would drive to the meeting. I wouldn’t have been able to participate if I had to fill out a card at the beginning of the meeting. I had young children at the time and it would have been very difficult to sit through an entire meeting, because I didn’t have childcare.
“We can figure out a way for people to participate without having to sit through an entire meeting.”
Trustee Melanie Blake, who serves on the board’s policies and procedures subcommittee with Ching, says that the speaker card system creates other problems.
“I don’t agree with the whole concept of speaker cards,” said trustee Melanie Blake. “If I’m sitting in the audience and a question comes up or a thought pops into my head, I want to be able to get up and say so.”
Board President Cathy Coleman thinks that the card system can work, but needs to be revised.
“I think it’s appropriate for people to have to fill out a speaker card online before the meeting because they have the agenda and it’s really hard [for staff] when they do it spontaneously at the last minute as staff is trying to manage the meeting in person and online,” she said. “We’re in a new situation [having both online and virtual comment available], which calls for some rethinking. Cards can be a good thing if we figure this out.”
Trustee Troy Knox said he respects that the district has limited staff for the meetings but thinks that the accessibility issue needs to be addressed.
Trustee John Kelly was not at the board meeting.
Two community members with children in the district also voiced concerns about the issue.
“I can fill out these public cards at the beginning of the meeting, but I have 50,000 questions throughout the meeting,” said Stacy Dickerson. “I would have loved to have been able to comment on the Sassarini [Elementary School] budget item, but I didn’t fill out a card in advance.”
Celeste Winders said that she and other parents and advocates for special education students have submitted public comment cards that have been rejected.
“You have a massive accessibility issue,” she told the board. “Public comment was never in issue until you made it one.”
Ching suggested that she and Blake work on revising the current policy through the subcommittee.
“The introduction of the cards was supposed to address a different problem, but now it seems to have unintended consequences,” Ching said. “I think if having a sort of offline discussion about what we’re trying to solve is the best method, and we can come back to the board with some recommendations.”
Blake said that she wants to be sensitive to the needs of the district staff, board and community when working on the policy.
Superintendent Dr. Adrian Palazuelos emphasized that the board needs to work solely with him, not with other staff members, on the issue.
“In no way, shape or form was this [accessibility issue policy] designed to inhibit or prohibit speech,” he said. “This is about us trying to create structure around what I would say was a very chaotic meeting of the district in public to conduct its business. So, you all can make your decision, but I want to make it abundantly clear that as superintendent, I work for you and you work through me.
“If you go to the staff on this you are micromanaging, and that is not what a good, effective governance structure is about. “
Blake replied that whatever procedure works best is fine with her, but she wants to be sure that the board is aware of staff needs so that it doesn’t inadvertently create more work for them.
Reach the reporter, Dan Johnson, at firstname.lastname@example.org.