During last week's Palo Alto Unified School District board meeting, members of the public could no longer address the board over Zoom, instead having to show up in person to speak their minds. The meeting had zero public commenters.
After permitting virtual comments during the pandemic, the board only allowed in-person comments at its Tuesday, April 19, meeting. Board member Shounak Dharap opposed the move, telling his colleagues at last week's meeting that Zoom comments were an important way to expand the public's ability to participate in board meetings.
"To me it's a little disappointing, well it's more than a little disappointing, that we're in a position to restrict access now to what we had," Dharap said.
The board's agenda-setting committee, which is composed of President Ken Dauber, Vice President Jennifer DiBrienza and Superintendent Don Austin, made the decision to suspend remote commenting. Dharap urged them to reconsider.
DiBrienza confirmed to the Weekly that the committee plans to take up the issue at its next meeting, which is expected to occur next week. According to DiBrienza, the decision to only allow in-person comments came after the committee determined that permitting remote comments was one of the few pandemic-era practices that was still in place.
Online comments allow working families and others who can't show up to the district's board room on a Tuesday night to participate, Dharap told colleagues last week. He added that board members are allowed to teleconference into meetings.
"I think it comes down to equity of access. We've opened the door, we've done it already, so why are we going to go back?" Dharap asked.
Palo Alto board member Jesse Ladomirak added her "emphatic agreement" after Dharap's comments calling for the return of a remote commenting option.
Dharap acknowledged that there may be concerns that people from outside the area would abuse remote commenting to disrupt a meeting, but he noted that Palo Alto Unified hasn't experienced this problem during the pandemic. There have been school districts around the country who have grappled with "Zoom bombing," in which a meeting is hijacked by outside users, typically to spread offensive content.
Other local school districts and governing bodies have taken varying approaches to public comment as pandemic restrictions ease. The Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District required people to show up in person to comment last fall. The Mountain View Whisman School District, on the other hand, still wasn't allowing any in-person audience members at their last meeting on April 7. The Palo Alto City Council has been giving the public the option to comment remotely or face to face.
Both Palo Alto student board representatives, Annika Bereny from Gunn High School and Micaiah Acosta from Palo Alto High School, voiced their support for remote commenting, noting that it can be hard for students to attend board meetings in person.
"A lot of students have to be at home by a certain time or don't have transportation to get to these board meetings," Acosta said. "Having the option of voicing their comments and voicing their opinions online was really helpful for them."
Board member Todd Collins noted that members of the public can still email the board with their perspectives, regardless of whether live remote commenting is allowed. Dauber was not at the April 19 meeting.