News


District slow to publish decisions made at meetings

Unlike other local school boards, Palo Alto Unified's is a half-year behind

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.

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Follow the Palo Alto Weekly/Palo Alto Online on Twitter @PaloAltoWeekly and Facebook for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

Former Editorial Intern Avi Salem and current Intern Anna Medina contributed reporting to this story.

Comments

10 people like this
Posted by Minutemen Democracy
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Apr 30, 2016 at 8:03 pm

This is a vital part of democracy.

Is the Board permitted to publish the Minutes of the previous meetings prior to the next Board meeting? Since they can't approve them until the next Board meeting, I thought they couldn't put them out before they could be approved, and this accounted for long delays during summer.

This still would not account for the six month delays during the school year.

Also frustrating is that Minutes of multiple meetings are presented at once, overwhelming any member of the public who tries to read them.

Information delayed is information denied. The longer it takes for the Minutes to be presented to the Board, the less likely any member of the public or Board member will remember what was said, and the less likely anyone can correct them. It hampers democracy.

The topic of how much detail to include was discussed at the last Board retreat. Let's be clear this is a very labor intensive job. Someone makes a choice how quickly and completely they want it done. The paid facilitator was arrogant about it, pushing an attitude of "you are the Board, the Minutes are only for you, you don't care what the public wants." But it is vitally important to this community, to know which Board members opposed measures and attacked people. For example, the fact that some Board members accused parents of perjury and evidence tampering in recorded meetings and then denied it is important to know.

Plus some Board members now cite as accomplishments improvements they opposed at Board of Education meetings. Board members can get away with these actions because they know it is difficult for any member of the public to review every recording and refer back to it. It is much easier to look up the Board minutes, but that is made nearly impossible by the delays. It delays the democratic process, reducing Board's ability to practice oversight of it's Administrators in a timely manner, and delays information getting to the public. It drastically diminishes the opportunity for the public to know what was said in Board discussions before a final vote is taken, especially if Minutes of previous discussions do not come out until after the final vote is taken.

This is a matter of how much payroll they want to put into it. It takes a lot of work hours, for anybody. There is no way around that.

It is under the control of the Administration and Superintendent, who has the majority of control over what the Minutes include and the slant they take. Sometimes it is frustrating that they don't include the public's input at meetings, or the Minutes seem slanted to show the Administration's desires. Other times they appear more balanced. It would be nice if the Minutes included when Board members cut off speakers, so the public can see the trends.

Minutes are not just for Board members. The facilitator was wrong. These are not their Board meeting belonging only to Board members, they belongs to the democratic process and ultimately the students Board members serve.

It would be better if the Minutes were compiled by an independent entity paid by the Board, and not the Superintendent and the people he or she pays, especially with an election coming.


15 people like this
Posted by Truth is easier
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 30, 2016 at 8:52 pm

@Minuteman,
I think the district administration, in realizing it could get away with flaunting all records laws and no one could make them, just simply doesn't care.

Word to the wise: the really great thing about being unfailingly honest and open is that it's really easier because you don't have to keep track of past lies, crimes, or misdemeanors. Still looking for truth and reconciliation from McGee.


7 people like this
Posted by It's the board, ...
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 1, 2016 at 12:47 pm

When you have board members like Dauber who made election pledges to make available to the public, via the Web, all of his communications with district staff and other board members that are not legally confidential and yet nearly two years later there is nothing, is it any wonder the district staff are following their "lead".

We have to get rid of these people. We need another election soooo bad!


10 people like this
Posted by Truth is easier
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 1, 2016 at 1:01 pm

@It's,
We know you have a vendetta against Dauber. Since he's the only one who has been honest an open, and usually stands alone trying to get the district to be, I take issue with your vendetta. We would do well to bring in others more like Dauber. At least Dauber returns communications, unlike Emberling who has never responded to any email or phone call.


3 people like this
Posted by Not enough money?
a resident of another community
on May 1, 2016 at 2:35 pm

Maybe the district does not have enough money to pay someone to review the tapes and prepare the minutes. Does the Superintendent have any staff support at all? Not enough money. And if you'll buy that, I'll throw the Golden Gate in free.


7 people like this
Posted by them's tha facts
a resident of Barron Park
on May 1, 2016 at 4:10 pm

@Truth,

The truth is I've never had a response from Dauber to any of my emails to the board so I have no idea where you get the idea that he's good at communicating. Lot's of responses from Heidi and none from Dauber. Go figure!

Claiming someone that publishes the truth on broken election pledges has a vendetta is as indicative of the standards you hold your politicians as Dauber's ethics.

I for one don't want people representing me who break their promises, to put it politely.


14 people like this
Posted by Truth is easier
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 1, 2016 at 5:04 pm

@thems,
I for one don't want people representing me who condine breaking the civil rights laws, the records laws, etc, and secrecy when it comes to protecting our children, which is why I regret ever voting for Heidi or passing out flyers for her. I see Dauber regularly stand up over hard issues others want to gloss over.

You have said your piece, over and over and over and over. We have heard you. You just make no case except that you don't like Dauber. I have signed up for board members lists and get way more info from Dauber's.

Did you realize there are records rules the district has to comply with by law? Student records, public records. Do you know they have never complied with almost any records request my family has made in five years? Ask the parents in the CAC about their problems getting records. No excuses now, districts are required to work out procedues for providing records according to the law, so especially in a district this well funded with a data officer and numerous technology people a communications officer, why can't we get records? We get a rigamarole, no records. Those failures to follow the law directly impact student education and wellbeing.

If the records you seek are public, why don't you ask for them and share them to spare us the harm you think is being caused? Then if you get them, let us know because I want to ask through you next time. Good luck with it.


6 people like this
Posted by fish or cut bait
a resident of Fairmeadow
on May 1, 2016 at 6:23 pm

"I've never had a response from Dauber to any of my emails to the board "

That's been my experience. Ken is good at blogs but very poor at responding to emails.

Whether you think it's important for board members to keep their election promises is up to you. You get four years to regret your decision.


10 people like this
Posted by Truth is easier
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 1, 2016 at 7:38 pm

@Max,
I hope you see this article as the gentle warning it is. It is still not too late to get on the right side of openness and restoring trust. But it's getting late. There are no real secrets, do not fall into your predecessor's trap of thinking that just because all hell hasn't broken, that everything will stay swept under the rug. Get rid of anyone telling you you have to cover anything up, or fail to follow the law diligently, and get help from outside to restore trust. Do it urgently. Your future here could go either way, but your odds drop the longer you side against openness. It's the law, even if bad things were done that legal thinks they got under the rug with no one looking (don't think people don't know about things, that was Skelly's mistake).

I say this as a community member on your side, I have nothing to do with the paper. I can tell they have been bending over backwards to treat you with kid gloves, but you don't seem to get it. This sounds to me like they are getting annoyed. Don't fix things and those will eventually come off. (Didn't they file a records lawsuit of some kind? This article was really really a gentle warning.)


3 people like this
Posted by Mil
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 2, 2016 at 11:35 am

Dauber couldn't do the job alone. He needs like minded people like himself to bring changes into the school district. There is an election around the corner, let's bring some new blood into that round which could propel our school district into the twenty first century. Change that our students can believe in.


6 people like this
Posted by outsider
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 2, 2016 at 12:15 pm

This filters down to the low standards for teachers taking months to return essays.

Admin is performing at a much lower standard than other districts and is very disconnected from its families for some reason, they are a very posturing bunch that seems to only look at petty details about themselves when the kids and families around them are just doing the best they can with all the strange roadblocks and minutia that seems to be their only priority.

Example-- Not one admin. at music concerts - at PALY not one for years. Just watch, they will all be at the opening for the new fancy theater all smiles ready to act like they support the music at PALY. The kids all do notice and remember. All the kids were there in the old theater, gym or churches singing and playing their hearts out , not worried about how fancy the place was. Kid know. They all deserve educated admin. willing to place importance on their efforts and arts education. Music is the one thing that could help and possibly save kids and their kids and so on..... There is nothing like playing a beautiful piece of music with a group of friends. All hopes out their that the new building will be for the kids and their education rather than a place to throw uppity parties where admin. congratulates themselves in front of donors. I hope they take too long and do not get around to it.


1 person likes this
Posted by LelandManorMom
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on May 3, 2016 at 6:58 pm

Perhaps a group of citizens or the WEEKLY should provide transcripts of the meetings and also summarize and track the info noted about, voting by issue for example.


1 person likes this
Posted by Money Down The Drain
a resident of Evergreen Park
on May 4, 2016 at 12:12 am

PAUSD seems like an overhyped school district with mediocre results in terms of what colleges the graduates attend. If more emphasis were made on an equal quality education for all, you would have more balanced students. The tardiness of the PAUSD school board's minutes are reflective of the overall ineffectiveness of the school district to achieve quality teaching results. Let's face it folks, what do your property taxes really pay for education wise in this district? Certainly not quality educational achievement results for the students. You are simply paying for the overpayment of administration and staff. And to top it off, your students still don't feel safe enough to take healthy risks, fail, fall down, succeed, get back up, and persevere! You should be teaching them what it tales to survive in life, and how to apply what is learned!


Like this comment
Posted by Alphonso
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on May 4, 2016 at 8:00 am

An audio/video recording is always better than written minutes because nothing is missed - many communities have switched away from note taking because it is time consuming and never completely accurate. The modern world changes - sort of like newspapers using word processors instead of typewriters.


8 people like this
Posted by outsider
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 4, 2016 at 8:23 am

pride comes before the fall, but they have fallen and still do not seem to know it and still think they are better than the other school districts. It is like they are in a hole telling everyone how great they are. maybe we really should just cover the hole and be happy not to have to hear all the details of nonproductive meetings that have somehow isolated themselves from their families they are serving.


3 people like this
Posted by Cougar alum
a resident of another community
on May 4, 2016 at 9:19 am

The meeting minutes from an official body are not a complete record or transcript of the meeting. They are just the record of the actions that the body took. Minutes often contain more information than that, but it is the actions that constitutes the key part.The minutes are relatively easy to record and must be filed for the actions to have legal effect.

In my jurisdiction, we are required to make the meeting minutes public within two weeks of the meeting. Obviously these are draft minutes because they are not approved by the body until the next monthly meeting. The reason for that requirement is that the meeting minutes should be available to the public before the subsequent meeting. Most people who join boards think that it is a requirement that the meetings must be kept secret until they have been approved. It turns out that is the opposite of the truth. I don't know whether the same timeline supply to the PAUSD school board, but it's worth checking into.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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