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Palo Alto school board to hold special policy workshop Tuesday

Meeting to focus on three policies

The Palo Alto school board will meet for a special workshop Tuesday morning to discuss proposed policy changes on board members' electronic communications, donations and research.

Current board bylaw on electronic communications states that while "electronic communication among Board members and between Board members, district administration, and members of the public is an efficient and convenient way to communicate and expedite the exchange of information and to help keep the community informed about the goals, programs, and achievements of the district and its schools," trustees "shall exercise caution so as to ensure that electronic communications are not used as a means for the Board to deliberate outside of an agendized Board meeting."

The board's policy review committee discussed at its Aug. 31 meeting whether or not emails sent to and from board members’ personal accounts should be considered public records, and whether to require that trustees only communicate about district-related matters on district email accounts. At that meeting, district attorney Harold Freiman of firm Lozano Smith told the review committee, which is chaired by Trustee Ken Dauber with Vice President Terry Godfrey as the other sitting board member, that Palo Alto Unified is at the "center of the storm" on a "hot topic," citing several other cases that have dealt with this exact question.

Lozano said that several other school districts he's working with on this topic are waiting to see the outcome of a 2013 case in which a member of the public made a Public Records Act request to the City of San Jose, including for emails and text messages sent or received on private electronic devices used by the mayor, City Council and city staff.

While a trial court originally ruled that the city must produce these documents under the California Public Records Act, an appellate court later reversed that decision.

Staff is looking for feedback on Tuesday from the full board on whether or not to pursue any changes to the existing bylaw on electronic communications.

Also on the table for discussion on Tuesday are possible changes to the district's policy on gifts, grants and bequests. The board’s policy review committee has been discussing potential changes around levels of donations that trigger board involvement, as well as donor anonymity after an anonymous donor committed to fund major capital improvements at Addison Elementary School.

Proposed changes include a stipulation that donations more than $50,000 "or that may have a significant effect on the future expenditures or direction of the district" require board approval.

Also, if a donor giving more than $50,000 "prefers to be publicly anonymous," the donor would be required to inform the superintendent of his or her identity, and the superintendent would then "inform the board in confidence." This requirement for identifying an anonymous donor could be waived, however, with a board vote at a public meeting, the proposed language states.

The board has previously discussed the issue of donor anonymity, with some trustees expressing concern that adding such a stipulation might act as a deterrent to future donations.

"What staff fears," a staff report on the policy changes states, "is that if an anonymous donor who insists on anonymity must be identified to anyone that the District would be far less likely to receive significant future donations including that which we are expecting for the remainder of the Addison School project."

The third policy the board will discuss Tuesday, on research, aims to protect both students and the district in either internally or externally conducted research projects. The idea for the policy changes arose in part as a result of in-depth research projects that high school students conducted last year as part of the new Advanced Authentic Research program.

Staff have also said that the district doesn’t have in place consistent, established procedures to handle the many requests that come in from outside researchers to study the district or its students in some way; this policy would put those in place.

Tuesday’s workshop will take place 8-10 a.m. at the district office, 25 Churchill Ave. Read the full agenda here. The board will also meet for its regular meeting in the evening, at 6:30 p.m.

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