It appeared that there was majority support on the school board to change its two-meeting approval requirement to the exception rather than the norm — until the board member who proposed the shift changed his position on Tuesday night.
"I thought that this proposed language would potentially provide clarity to achieve the purpose of the rule better than it's being achieved now," board member Shounak Dharap said. "I think it's safe to say I was wrong."
Despite maintaining that the rule lacks clarity, Dharap decided against supporting the policy change he had drafted four months ago in response to what he said seemed to be "broad, unanimous" opposition from community members. He had proposed that instead of current practice — requiring that the board discuss items over two public meetings before taking a vote — that all non-routine agenda items be designated initially for action unless two board members request that an item be postponed for action.
Several parents and community members, including former school board members, have spoken out against his proposal, defending the rule as an effective, longtime practice that protects transparency and encourages public engagement.
"The proposal to do away with the two-meeting rule represents a step in the direction of less transparency, less accountability and with it a less democratic school board," parent Michelle Higgins told the board on Tuesday. "Anybody who has attended the public comment portion of a board meeting during the past year would recognize that there is already justifiable community concern for lack of transparency in district decision-making, and that includes concern that the school board has fallen down on more than one occasion in conducting reasonable oversight of key district decisions."
Dana Tom, who served on the board from 2005 to 2014, cautioned that it takes time for the community to become aware of issues, often after an item has already been discussed once.
"If the standard becomes one meeting for items, there will be many more times the public will feel blindsided and shut out," he wrote in an email to the board. "The public deserves better than that."
Board President Jennifer DiBrienza and member Melissa Baten Caswell also opposed the policy change. They cited examples of major board decisions that benefited from new information that came out between the first and subsequent meetings, including the recent renaming of two middle schools and in 2012, when a citizens committee stopped the district from issuing a particular kind of bond, saving taxpayers $850 million.
"Maybe we do things a little differently from other communities but clearly this community needs to know what their elected officials are talking about," Baten Caswell said.
DiBrienza said the board has become "more efficient than I ever thought we would become" in recent years, with more orderly, shorter meetings. The district should focus on improving communication about upcoming board items with the public rather than reducing the number of times they're discussed, she said.
Vice President Todd Collins and board member Ken Dauber were in the minority in their support of the proposed change. Dauber said he was disappointed that Dharap, who he serves on the board's policy review committee with, withdrew his support.
"I'm disappointed that he has stepped back from that because I think he was right then and I think he's wrong now," Dauber said.
Dauber has long criticized the two-meeting rule as an anomaly among public agencies and a practice that makes the board less efficient and effective. (The Palo Alto City council has a "second reading" ordinance, which is distinct from the school board’s two meeting rule. Agenda items that the council has voted on return to a future meeting on the consent calendar and can only be removed by a majority vote.)
"Doing things two times doesn't somehow make them more transparent," Dauber said. "If this practice is so critical to transparency and democracy, why are we the only ones that find it necessary to do it?"
Dharap suggested two new amendments that he said would preserve the rule but make it more clear: directing staff to draft definitions of routine and non-routine agenda items and creating an exemption that the two-meeting requirement would not apply to any agenda items that are made publicly available 14 days before a board meeting.
He requested that the board's policy review committee take these up for further study but there was not enough support among his colleagues to support doing so.