The Palo Alto school district is an outlier when it comes to officially documenting and making public the minutes from meetings of the Board of Education.
While most local school boards approve minutes from previous meetings in a timely, regular manner -- typically by the next meeting -- Palo Alto Unified is six months behind.
The most recent minutes, approved by the board on April 19, were for its Oct. 13, 2015 meeting. Since then, there have been nine regularly scheduled board meetings and several special board meetings. With no publicly available minutes, members of the public cannot read a summary of what transpired at those meetings.
By contrast, district employees from 10 other local school districts said it is their policy to approve minutes at the board's next meeting. For example, at the Los Altos School District Board of Trustees' Feb. 8 meeting, the Jan. 25 minutes were approved, according to district documents posted online. On Feb. 9, the Menlo Park City School District board approved minutes from three previous meetings, the most recent one being on Jan. 21, according to documents posted on the school district's website. Minutes for the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District Board of Trustees' most recent meeting on April 18 are available on the district's website. The Sequoia Union High School District Board of Trustees approved at its most recent meeting the minutes from the previous regular meeting.
The Pleasanton Unified School District, which is similar in size to Palo Alto, is not quite as current. At a regular March 22 meeting, the board approved minutes from Jan. 12, according to documents posted on the district website.
Redwood City School District's board clerk said minutes there typically come to the board for approval within about three weeks.
Palo Alto Unified and these other school districts operate under a board bylaw, based on a California School Boards Association sample policy, that stipulates regular approval of minutes to provide a record of board actions for use by district staff and the public -- a means to "help foster public trust that Board actions are occurring in public in accordance with law."
Under this bylaw, the superintendent or designee must distribute a copy of the "unapproved" minutes of the previous meeting or meetings with the agenda for the next regular meeting. At the next meeting, the board should approve the minutes as presented or with any necessary changes, the bylaw states.
Why is Palo Alto so far behind? Staff say it's the kind of minutes that are being recorded: more detailed summaries rather than the brief, high-level summary of actions required under board bylaw.
The bylaw states that minutes should include "only a brief summary of the Board's discussion, but shall not include a verbatim record of the Board's discussion on each agenda topic or the names of Board members who made specific points during the discussion."
The minutes must include the specific language for any motion made, the names of the members who made and seconded the motion and the individual votes of each member, unless the action was unanimous, the bylaw states. When a roll-call vote is taken, the names and votes of each member must be listed in the minutes. Motions or resolutions must be recorded as having passed or failed.
Monica Sanchez Lopez, executive assistant to the superintendent, however, has taken more detailed notes during board meetings, according to Communications Coordinator Jorge Quintana. She later goes back to a video recording of the meeting to "check for accuracy," and the minutes come back to the board for approval "as soon as they are finished," Quintana wrote in an email.
At a January school board retreat, Sanchez Lopez brought an informal proposal to streamline this process -- and, thus, align the district with its own board bylaw. She proposed writing succinct summaries of action, as most other local school districts provide, and directing anyone in need of additional details about a meeting with links to the video recordings.
"Staff believes that this process would improve the turnaround time for the minutes and that it would be more cost effective," Quintana said.
Sanchez Lopez has started transitioning to the summary-style approach, he said.
When Sanchez Lopez's recent predecessor, Kathleen Ruegsegger, served as the Palo Alto Unified superintendent's executive assistant for 11 years, she mostly recorded summary-style minutes, and said it was "relatively easy" to turn minutes over from one meeting to the next. She remembers "being in a panic" if she was more than two meetings behind.
But at a previous school board's request, she started taking lengthier and more "attributive" minutes, until the board reversed that request, she said.
"Superintendents change, board members change, pressures and priorities on that job changed, and I know there was one summer when I think I must have done ... 12, 15 sets of minutes over the summer trying to catch up again," Ruegsegger said.
Staff from most neighboring districts described their minutes as "action minutes." Only Los Gatos-Saratoga Union High School District staff said the practice is to "capture any significant discussion, in addition to decisions made by board."
Other local school districts also make minutes consistently and more easily accessible to the public than Palo Alto. Menlo Park, for example, has a dedicated section on its website for minutes, with links to documents broken down by school year, running back to 2007. Minutes from all regular and special board meetings are included. Once they are approved by the board, minutes are posted online, usually within 72 hours, according to Lanita Villasenor, executive assistant to the superintendent.
Similarly, the Mountain View-Whisman School District website has a page that lists the board's current meeting calendar, with links to the agenda, minutes and a video recording for each meeting. Minutes are also posted for the 2014-15 and 2013-14 school years. The Sequoia Union High School District, too, posts minutes on dedicated pages reaching back to 2011.
Palo Alto's practice is to post the minutes, after they are approved, with the corresponding agenda, Quintana said. Currently, on the school board's main webpage, there are only minutes posted for three meetings in September 2015, and the archive only reaches back to Aug. 21, 2015.
The September 2015 minutes were approved five months later, at the board's Feb. 23, 2016, meeting.
On a separate district webpage, which isn't linked to the board page that has the September 2015 minutes, there are archived meeting packets and minutes from the 2003-04 school year onward. Most meetings until 2015 contain corresponding links to minutes.
When it comes to another public-disclosure practice -- posting emails from the public to the board and superintendent, which are considered public records -- neither Palo Alto Unified nor most other local districts make correspondence generally available.
In Palo Alto, letters or emails to the board are not regularly placed in the board's agenda packet unless specifically requested by the people who write them, Quintana said. The superintendent's office must receive the correspondence by noon one week prior to a board meeting to make it into the packet.
Most other districts operate under the same by-request-only process, save Menlo Park, which typically submits any correspondence addressed to the entire board in a "written communication" agenda item at the next regular board meeting, according to Villasenor.
In the Piedmont Unified School District, letters to the board are read aloud at meetings but are not printed for public distribution, according to Sylvia Eggert, administrative assistant to the superintendent.
Similarly, correspondence between members of the board, the superintendent and others, also a matter of public record, are not routinely made public. However, they can be made obtained when a citizen files a Public Records Act request, a California law designed to give the public access to information held by public agencies.