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.