Should the school board's two-meeting policy be the exception rather than the rule? | News | Palo Alto Online |


Should the school board's two-meeting policy be the exception rather than the rule?

Board members to discuss proposed policy change Tuesday

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The Palo Alto Unified Board of Education's two-meeting rule, which requires board members to discuss items over two public meetings before taking a vote, is treasured by many community members for ensuring transparency and thorough public engagement, particularly for contentious issues.

But some board members think the rule is falling short of its original purpose. The school board will discuss on Tuesday changing its policy so that two-meeting approvals are the exception rather than the rule.

Board member Shounak Dharap brought the proposal to the board's policy review committee in May. (The policy at question is a board bylaw on meeting conduct.) Fellow board member Ken Dauber, the current chair of the policy review committee, has frequently criticized the two-meeting rule as ineffective and slowing down the board's work.

Dharap is proposing that all non-routine agenda items be designated initially for action unless a minority of the board — two members — request that an item be postponed for action at their next regular meeting. Currently, policy requires a two-thirds vote to waive the two-meeting requirement.

"I strongly believe that the amended rule would do a better job of sunshining controversial issues than the two-meeting rule does now," Dharap said in an interview. "Right now the two-meeting rule is a great sounding rule but it doesn't have the same type of effect as we would hope."

He described the rule's application as "unclear and inconsistent," with loopholes and board members frequently waiving it for routine or more time-sensitive items.

"If this is a rule that's being waived indiscriminately that presents another problem. It means its purpose isn't actually being met or at least not consistently," Dharap said.

Before Dharap was elected in November, he told the Weekly that he supported the two-meeting rule, which "leads to more thoughtful solutions and maintains transparency in the decision-making process," but that it's appropriate for the board to waive the requirement for broadly supported agenda items.

He now sees his proposed policy change as a check on the power of the agenda-setting committee — the board president, vice president and superintendent, who together decide what items will be listed for discussion or on the consent agenda (typically approved without any debate, though a single board member can ask that an item be pulled from consent for a vote).

After hearing concerns from community members about his proposal this weekend, however, Dharap said he's open to discussing "other ways to amend the rule to balance clarity and transparency."

Parent Kathy Jordan, a former school board candidate who ran against Dharap in November, has urged the board against adopting the exception.

"The school district is a public agency financed by taxpayers, whose children are enrolled in its public schools. Why not encourage public participation, and give the community the chance to weigh in, rather than ensuring the turnaround time on agenda items is as little as possible?" she wrote in an email to the board this weekend.

Vice President Todd Collins replied to her that he's open to the suggested change as a way "to balance the need to conduct the public's business efficiently and effectively, with taking our time." Palo Alto Unified's two-meeting requirement is an outlier, he said.

At least one of Dharap's colleagues does not support his proposal. President Jennifer DiBrienza told the Weekly that the board has become more efficient and transparent in recent years and that there's no need to do away with the two-meeting requirement.

"This is a solution without a problem," she said. "I would rather we keep codified a level of transparency that is really important in order to allow the community the participation that it wants, it expects and that we benefit from."

The rule is not crucial to the board's operations — most public agencies function without it — but it improves the decision-making process, DiBrienza said.

Before she was elected to the board, she often read about hot-button issues in news articles published the morning after the board's first discussion, and then had the opportunity to share her opinion at the second meeting. There's also a short timeframe between when the district releases board agendas, the Friday before a meeting, and the meeting itself.

"I don't think this is imperative for us to do our work. I just think it makes us do better work," DiBrienza said of the two-meeting rule.

The current policy also guards against the whims of future boards that might be less committed to transparency and community input, she said.

Also on the board's Tuesday agenda as an informational item, meaning it will not be discussed unless requested by a board member, are results from three years of federally mandated surveys on sexual harassment. The district has been required to survey high school students on Title IX issues under a 2017 resolution agreement with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. The district must submit the responses annually to the federal government.

Student participation on the survey has dropped sharply, from 65.6% in 2017 to 12.5% this year — just 517 students from Gunn and Palo Alto high schools. A staff presentation attributes the decline to survey fatigue, decreased emphasis from the school administrations and more student-originated survey options.

The percentage of students who have experienced or witnessed sexual harassment at school in the last year has gone up over time, though the actual number of students has dropped given the decline in participation.

Students also appear less likely now to report harassment to their schools: just under 8% of students this year said they had reported compared to 17.5% in 2018 and 12% in 2017. This year, students said they didn't report because they didn't need help, they didn't want attention or to make things worse or "the process doesn't work/is a pain." Witness reporting has also gone down since last year.

Fewer students felt their school responded effectively to claims of harassment, while parents, however, reported the opposite on the survey.

Both students and parents reported being more aware of resources that are available to address sexual harassment in Palo Alto Unified.

The Tuesday, Sept. 10, board meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. at the district office, 25 Churchill Ave. View the agenda here.


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28 people like this
Posted by Samuel L
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 9, 2019 at 2:45 pm

A decrease in the participation of Title IX issues was the result of "decreased emphasis from the school administrations". Translation: Now that the spotlight has died down, the administration doesn't bother with it anymore. As new administrators come on board, the old policies of hide, ignore and CYA regain control.

Overall, it looks like those poll results show no improvement in the climate on campuses. More reporting and also less likely to report. I'm sure staff will spin this as "more awareness and self empowerment."

Dharap is pulling the old bait and switch. Pre-election it was "vote for me, I'm all for transparency." Now that he's been elected he's falling into the trap of trying to limit public input. As DiBrienza stated, it's a solution without a problem. I wouldn't be surprised if Austin were the one pulling Dharap's strings.

How much time does it take to discuss an item in meeting #1 and then approve it in meeting #2? What harm is done by discussing the item in public and letting people know your actual views. Is that what the board is afraid of?

If the board members feel their time is too precious to be bothered by having to publicly discuss an item and then wait a couple weeks to vote on it, in the name of public comment, then maybe they should rethink running for school board next election.

13 people like this
Posted by Don't do anything extra
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 9, 2019 at 4:08 pm

#Samuel L - I agree.

16 people like this
Posted by Don't do anything extra
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 9, 2019 at 4:09 pm

Flip flop Dharap

14 people like this
Posted by Fan meet rug
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 10, 2019 at 10:31 am

PAUSD Board,
Until you deal honestly and proactively with the retaliations, the consequences of previous employee behavior that you yourselves know wasn't always legal, transparent, or honest, and families who were forced out, children traumatized -- without requiring a federal complaint to do it -- you cannot claim you are transparent and functioning better than any of the previous boards some of you criticized.

I'm afraid I agree with Samuel L. I do not trust this proposal, and see no sign that things have fundamentally changed.

2 people like this
Posted by ferdinand
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 10, 2019 at 11:02 am

I skimmed the survey results, but one of the results [I recall] was that quite a few more students felt able to deal with the teasing and harassment themselves [about 43%], which is a positive thing, and is part of the reason students are reporting less. Check if for yourself.

16 people like this
Posted by Green Acres parent
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 10, 2019 at 11:41 am

First they reduced public comments from 3 minutes to 1 or 2 minutes for controversial agenda items. Now they're trying to get rid of the two-meeting rule. Not only will this halve the number of board meetings where the public can comment on a given topic, it will also limit the public's ability to do research. It will make it harder for board members who want to do their own research on a topic before making decisions. The only people it will help are the board members who have their own agenda and want to impose it upon everyone else.

Two wrongs don't make a right. The agenda-setting committee is indeed too powerful. Getting rid of the two-meeting rule doesn't fix that; it only makes it worse.

I still remember when Camille Townsend was on the board. Listening to her on the dais, it was quite clear that she valued public input. She has always been a strong advocate for the two-meeting rule.

Board members: where is your humility?

Like this comment
Posted by Parrent
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 10, 2019 at 12:49 pm

Thank goodness the school board is dragging itself out of the muck it has been in. Meetings till after midnight, hours of repetitive public comments - no wonder sensible people are unwilling to serve. Running better meetings is a good first step.

Is there any other school board, or any other elected group, that has a rule that says they have to do everything twice? Using meeting procedures like every other group isn't arrogance - it's more like common sense.

11 people like this
Posted by Zeev Wurman
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 10, 2019 at 2:10 pm

"I strongly believe that the amended rule would do a better job of sunshining controversial issues than the two-meeting rule does now," Dharap said in an interview. "Right now the two-meeting rule is a great sounding rule but it doesn't have the same type of effect as we would hope."

Yes, we definitely need to listen to the wise and experienced public servant Dharap. After all, he has had the long experience of serving on the board for eight (8!) months.

9 people like this
Posted by pa
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 10, 2019 at 2:34 pm

How about you can skip the 2 meeting rule when you post the agenda 1 month before the decision-date? In essence provide the time upfront, not as effective, without the chance for discussion, but I have no confidence you would be able to post the agenda timely since you are not really after transparency....

Your transparency is biased
You self-congratulate perceived wins and hide failures
You lack metrics that are meaningful, just fluff statements
You make promises without budget or reduce the budget later
You ignore complaints of lawlessness, corruption and harm (even reward perpetrators with contracts and raises) that deny students access to their education
You exclude entire segments of the school population in programs (high school) and only when probed is it disclosed
You put all your eggs in layers of the legal self-protection because all that double-dipping investment it is not for the students or community and then you go about your merry way strategizing how to allow for as little input as possible, because the decisions are already made.
PRE-DETERMINATION IS ILLEGAL in special education.
However, you as the School Board model is so well, it's become a best practice throughout PAUSD, don't know why you bothered to rename the schools, you still practice eugenics by making life intolerable and forcing people into failure and out.

4 people like this
Posted by Zeev Wurman
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 10, 2019 at 11:11 pm

To Dharap's great credit, at the board meeting today he acknowledged that all the feedback he sought on this issue was negative, and as the consequence he withdrew his proposed language for the change.

It takes a lot of guts to admit in public to a mistake. While I'd rather he didn't make the mistake, his willingness to suffer the loss of face for the benefit of the community should be recognized and appreciated.

Than you!

10 people like this
Posted by Don't do anything extra
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 11, 2019 at 7:41 am

Deceitful Dauber (I believe in open government!) and two faced Todd (I'm running on transparency and trust!) favor cutting back on public participation in the school district.

9 people like this
Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 11, 2019 at 9:44 am

The response rates to the sexual harassment climate survey are a disgrace and these data are worthless. Superintendent Don Austin and every member of the School Board has failed in their responsibility to conduct an appropriate and valid climate survey as required by the OCR Resolution Agreement. This puts student safety at risk.

Maybe more time discussing the lack of accountability reflected in this worthless survey and less time debating obscure points of procedure about how many times the Board has to discuss the number of white boards per classroom would have been of greater benefit to PAUSD students, particularly vulnerable students. What a waste of time it was for the board to sit around talking about these useless data.

PAUSD has a Resolution Agreement with the federal government because it had an abominable history of failing to address student sexual assault and harassment -- a history that involved inappropriate conduct by teachers, administrators, and students. The prior board, run by Melissa Caswell, Dana Tom, and Camille Townsend also had a history of not discussing these failures in public but in closed meetings.

If the board truly cared about transparency it would demand better data immediately and instruct Austin to go repeat the survey now. But hey at least they will have to discuss the failure to get this right twice.

7 people like this
Posted by Samuel L.
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 11, 2019 at 10:05 am

Samuel L. is a registered user.

@Michelle Dauber - YES! They gloss over the glaringly poor survey results but spent 30 minutes talking about something even they said multiple times was a solution without a problem.

How about focus on the actual problems. Instead they've reduced the time of the Title IX coordinator. Was she even at the meeting last night to discuss the survey?

Like this comment
Posted by Walter Hays Dad
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 13, 2019 at 6:37 pm

@Michele Dauber. Why don’t we push for the district to make the survey mandatory to receive grades? That is, before a student’s grades can be released for the semester or end of year, the student must complete the survey. Seems this could be a simple matching of databases at the district level. I understand certain colleges and universities now refuse to release grades in courses until students complete course satisfaction surveys (likely to ensure sufficient feedback on which to evaluate students).

3 people like this
Posted by Samuel L.
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 13, 2019 at 9:59 pm

Samuel L. is a registered user.

@ Walter Hays Dad,
First, that's probably illegal. One of the reasons given for the lack of participation was that the lack of emphasis in the area of Title IX. Let's put the blame on the administration, where it belongs.

Obviously, now that the story is off the front page, PAUSD no longer feels the need to continue their PR campaign. It's a reactionary district. They will only address the issues that are brought to them. Look at the past three years of what they've done: Sexual Assaults, teacher abusing students, renaming schools, union contracts, legal fees, etc...

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