In an effort to rein in meetings that regularly run past 10 p.m., the Palo Alto Board of Education is testing a series of limits on public comment, but some community members are voicing concern that this could hinder their ability to provide feedback to their elected officials.
The board approved the changes at a governance workshop last Wednesday, Sept. 13, and decided to pilot them for the rest of the current school year. They will begin at the board's next regular meeting on Sept. 26.
Trustees decided unanimously to limit comment for both agendized items and during open forum, a section at the start at every meeting when people can speak to any issue not on the agenda for that meeting. If there are 10 or fewer speakers for an agendized item or in total for open forum, each person will get the typical three minutes. If there are between 11 and 15 speakers, their time will go down to two minutes; between 16 and 20 people to one-and-a-half minutes; and to one minute for more than 20.
Several board members opposed another proposal to randomly pick speakers if there are more than 20.
The discussion centered on how to balance what board member Todd Collins called "two competing goods" -- hearing public comments and getting through the public's business at a decent hour. Several hot-button issues tested the board's balance of these two elements during the last school year, from community outcry over the high schools' weighted grade reporting practices to the implementation of a new sex-education curriculum.
The board also voted 3-2 (Collins, Ken Dauber and Terry Godfrey in favor) to implement a 30-minute cap on open forum and add a 15-minute section at the end of meetings for overflow comments.
In interviews with the Weekly, several community members expressed concern about the impact of the limits on the public's ability to make their voices heard.
"When students speak they should be heard without the menace of a shortened buzzer. Parents and teachers take the time to prepare (for) and attend board meetings with the intent to deliver ideas for consideration, articulate their heart-felt principles and publicly provide a glimpse into the 'state of the state' of families," Christina Schmidt, the former chair of special-education advocacy group Community Advisory Committee, wrote in an email.
Kimberly Rice D'Ewart, a regular participant in board meetings, commented on the Weekly's Facebook page that she finds open forum "the most valuable, informative, efficiently run and lacking of dead-time portion of the meetings.
"You are basically taking away the ability to make any substantial argument by reducing the public speaking time by two-thirds," she wrote. "Reward those who are going out of their way to ... make a point they think will better their community by giving them your attention!"
Gunn High School's student board representative, senior Advait Arun, said he's not supportive of scaling down speaking time based on the number of people who show up for any given issue. A hard cap of 30 minutes, he said, would be better.
"If 10 people come for an issue and then (one more person) comes in, are we going to decrease the time for everyone else just because that one person arrived late?" he asked.
Regardless, speakers should be prepared to pare down prepared remarks or email their comments to board members, Arun said in an interview. He plans to seek reaction from Gunn students on the changes and provide feedback to the board members.
Schmidt said she's observed an increase over the last year in groups turning out to meetings to advocate for a particular issue.
She and others suggested other ways to handle this increased attendance without potentially hindering the public's ability to speak. The board could take a snap poll after several statements expressing the same position, she proposed, to prevent repetition and allow for diversity of opinion.
The board could also hold more special meetings on particular topics that trustees know will garner ample community input, Schmidt said. The board did this last year on the district budget, class size, board policies and other topics.
Parent Rita Tetzlaff, a regular speaker at board meetings, said these special meetings would be a good opportunity for the board to interact more with the public and respond to specific comments.
Stephen Schmidt, who serves as the parent representative on the board's policy review committee and has spoken at many board meetings, said he is not against limiting speakers' time as long as overflow time is built in at the end of meetings. He suggested board members also limit the amount of time they speak and cut down on staff presentations of reports that the board has received and read beforehand.
"The basis of the board's move is a belief that community comment is what delays meetings. For a board that tends to love data, where is their data that it is community input that is the issue, and not other aspects of the meeting?" Schmidt asked.
At the governance workshop, board members also voted unanimously to change the board's default end time from 10 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. and allow themselves to only vote to extend the meeting once. (In the past, members have regularly approved numerous extensions throughout the evening as they tried to get to remaining agenda items, often postponing non-time-sensitive items to a later date.)
They also discussed the value of the board's two-meeting rule, which requires members to discuss an item at least once before voting on it. Dauber said this rule is harming rather than helping the board's processes and suggested they do away with it.
"I think it's a source of unnecessary time for the community where they have to come twice if they want to comment on something, and for issues where there is a lot of community comment it takes up an inordinate amount of board time to do that," he said. "I don't think it serves the decision-making process well."
Trustee Melissa Baten Caswell disagreed, arguing that the rule increases transparency by giving people two chances to comment on an issue and allows time for staff to answer board members' questions.
Board members also agreed to discuss at a later date how to incorporate emails sent to the board into agenda packets. The practice is currently inconsistent, with staff including emails from people who request their communication to be included in the public packets. This contrasts with the Palo Alto City Council's practice of automatically including all emails to the council in meeting packets without redactions.
Trustees agreed to seek legal counsel on how the board could implement such a practice while protecting personal information about students.
The board will review the effectiveness of the pilot governance changes at its retreat next year before deciding whether to make them permanent.