News

Palo Alto Unified cuts off remote commenting, prompting pushback

Board member Shounak Dharap urges colleagues to allow public to participate over Zoom

Palo Alto Unified School District board members from left, Jesse Ladomirak, Jennifer DiBrienza and Shounak Dharap, and Superintendent Don Austin listen to a member of the public speak during a board meeting on Sept. 14, 2021. Photo by Magali Gauthier

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.

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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.

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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.

Zoe Morgan covers education, youth and families for the Mountain View Voice and Palo Alto Weekly / PaloAltoOnline.com, with a focus on using data to tell compelling stories. A Mountain View native, she has previous experience as an education reporter in both California and Oregon. Read more >>

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Palo Alto Unified cuts off remote commenting, prompting pushback

Board member Shounak Dharap urges colleagues to allow public to participate over Zoom

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Fri, Apr 29, 2022, 6:56 am

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.

Comments

peppered
Registered user
Community Center
on Apr 29, 2022 at 11:58 am
peppered, Community Center
Registered user
on Apr 29, 2022 at 11:58 am

What are they thinking suppressing citizen involvement?
Maybe it's time to boot them out and elect folks who are more interested in hearing from us.


Chris
Registered user
another community
on Apr 29, 2022 at 12:35 pm
Chris, another community
Registered user
on Apr 29, 2022 at 12:35 pm

I'm surprised that the paper allowed the three letter abbreviation for a vulgar and offensive expletive to be used in the Comment section. That abbrevion has has been bleeped out on television and radio shows locally and nationally. It seems to me that having some standards of civility in the paper doesn't harm the free speech opportunities of anonymous participants. Just my opinion.


Samuel L.
Registered user
Professorville
on Apr 29, 2022 at 12:56 pm
Samuel L., Professorville
Registered user
on Apr 29, 2022 at 12:56 pm

Is this really a surprise? The district always talks about open communication, equal access and their favorite one, "transparency", but they'd prefer to not have to deal with parents or the public. They make sure to speak loudly about reaching out to the underrepresented groups in the district, yet they vote to limit the access of those same people.

Collins throws them some crumbs and says they can just email us and maybe we'll read it. Some parents and students can't spend an hour plus driving to the district office and waiting for their name to be called.

What is the harm in allowing remote comments? How does that negatively impact the meeting.

Jennifer DiBrienza gives a weak excuse that it's the only Covid influenced policy remaining. What's her point? Many companies have made long lasting changes, mostly because it makes things better for all.

PAUSD should just come out and admit they're goal is not to get feedback and criticism.




Bystander
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 29, 2022 at 1:17 pm
Bystander, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Apr 29, 2022 at 1:17 pm

In the past I have been at PAUSD board meetings long after my kids' bedtimes. Probably long after a babysitter's bedtime.

Not everyone can stay at a meeting until "they" decide it is time for public comment.


S. Underwood
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Apr 29, 2022 at 7:21 pm
S. Underwood, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Apr 29, 2022 at 7:21 pm

The video conference approach to meetings was one of the very few good things to come out of our schools' Covid response.

Not only should remote commenting be permitted, but remote attendance for all (presenters, officials, etc) should be allowed and indeed encouraged. Same goes for City Council.


Anony Mouse
Registered user
Palo Alto Hills
on May 2, 2022 at 8:25 pm
Anony Mouse, Palo Alto Hills
Registered user
on May 2, 2022 at 8:25 pm

Hmmm. So the three person committee made this decision. I wonder how this vote went down. Do we think Don was fighting tooth and nail for more transparency? Jennifer’s quote seems evasive. Maybe it was unanimous? We all know that everything this board does is by unanimous vote. Democracy in action. This is your tax dollars, my friends. You might want to “write to the Board” as Todd suggests. I’m sure they’ll get right on it.


Anony
Registered user
Adobe-Meadow
on May 4, 2022 at 8:23 am
Anony, Adobe-Meadow
Registered user
on May 4, 2022 at 8:23 am

Very disappointed. In this time and day there is no excuse and it only shows their obvious intent to shut the community up. Time to get these three out.


rsmithjr
Registered user
Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 5, 2022 at 6:18 pm
rsmithjr, Duveneck/St. Francis
Registered user
on May 5, 2022 at 6:18 pm

What is the excuse for this?

PAUSD wants the residents to support the district. We can have bake sales, donations, and so on, but they don't want to hear our views.


Roger Dodger
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on May 5, 2022 at 7:25 pm
Roger Dodger, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on May 5, 2022 at 7:25 pm

You would think that Don Austin would be chomping at the bit to let the media know that he is #1 at transparency by encouraging every single possible way for people to take part in the democratic process of running our schools. Surely there is room for this. Unless it's just too bothersome to hear from the hoi poloi when there are so many critical things to take care of, like staying on top of like a curated Twitter feed that, curiously enough, also limits comments from the public....


Samuel L
Registered user
Professorville
on May 7, 2022 at 10:00 pm
Samuel L, Professorville
Registered user
on May 7, 2022 at 10:00 pm

Austin can't handle criticism. He's an adolescent in a large grown body. Not sure how anyone is surprised. People from his old district in Palos Verdes told us this is how he operates. He puts on a smiley face in front of the cameras, but has little respect for the views of teachers, parents, community members.


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