The Palo Alto school board voted on Tuesday to create a committee that will review its public commenting procedures, but decided to wait until its next meeting on June 21 to decide whether to reinstate remote commenting in the interim while the committee deliberates.
The board directed President Ken Dauber to name two board members to an ad hoc committee that will bring back a recommendation on how to handle public comment during board meetings, particularly whether to accept comments over Zoom, by the first meeting of next school year on Aug. 23. Dauber is expected to name the members of the committee at the June 21 meeting, and told his colleagues on Tuesday that Shounak Dharap would be one of the two members.
Dharap is the board member who originally called for a discussion about remote commenting to be placed on the agenda for Tuesday's meeting.
The board began allowing members of the public to address the board via Zoom during the pandemic and retained the option when meetings resumed in person. Those wishing to speak to the board during meetings could either show up in person or call in using Zoom.
That changed in April, when the board's agenda-setting committee, made up of Dauber, Vice President Jennifer DiBrienza and Superintendent Don Austin, decided to revert back to the pre-pandemic norm of requiring that all commenters attend in person at the board room, which is located at 25 Churchill Ave.
At the April 19 meeting where the new policy took effect, Dharap called on his colleagues to reverse the decision and allow Zoom comments once again.
On Tuesday, a motion that would have immediately reinstated Zoom comments failed to reach a vote, because the board didn't have the 4-1 supermajority that is needed to waive what's known as the "two-meeting rule." The board's bylaws call for most topics to be presented at an initial board meeting before being voted on at a second meeting.
Dauber and board member Todd Collins both voted against waiving the two-meeting rule to reinstate Zoom commenting immediately, meaning that the issue will come back at the next meeting on June 21.
On the other hand, the board did vote unanimously to waive the two-meeting rule to vote on creating the ad hoc committee, and the vote on forming the committee also passed unanimously.
Assuming the opinions expressed on Tuesday hold steady, the board looks poised to vote to resume Zoom comments at the next board meeting while the committee deliberates. Board members Dharap, DiBrienza and Jesse Ladomirak all signaled support, with Collins and Dauber expressing concerns.
Dharap, DiBrienza and Ladomirak all argued that allowing Zoom comments expands access and lowers the barriers in place for members of the public to address the board. They particularly pointed to benefits for those who may have logistical difficulties to attend in-person meetings, such as scheduling issues and transportation challenges.
"In my opinion, this is an issue of equity," Dharap said. "We've opened the door to public comment virtually, due to the pandemic, and now we're in the position to determine whether or not that door should be closed or whether it should remain open."
Dauber, on the other hand, said that when the agenda-setting committee ended Zoom commenting in April, he viewed it as reverting to the norm that had always been in place before the pandemic: If you want to comment, you show up in-person.
"I would characterize (continuing Zoom comments) as making permanent an emergency measure after the emergency is over," Dauber said. "I don't think that means we shouldn't do it, but I also think that we should treat it as a change and not simply as the reversal of a change."
Collins raised concerns about whether the potential increase in public comments from allowing Zoom participation indefinitely could slow down meetings. He suggested that the board form a committee to study the issue and make a recommendation that addresses topics such as time limits for public comments, when during meetings to hear from the public and how to handle offensive comments.
In particular, Collins raised the risk of "Zoom bombing," where people from outside the community call into a meeting to anonymously spew hateful messages. Zoom bombing has happened to public bodies around the country during the pandemic, including relatively obscure ones.
"As a high-profile school district in a progressive community, if it does happen to us, I think we will know why," Collins said.
Dauber similarly said that allowing Zoom comments means anyone with an internet connection can access the meeting, and said that the district could hypothetically attract attention in the future for taking actions on topics such as improving treatment of transgender students, adopting an ethnic sutdies curriculum or passing a resolution related to anti-racism.
The rest of the board was amenable to creating a committee to review commenting procedures and put safeguards in place, but Ladomirak, DiBrienza and Dharap signaled support for allowing remote commenting in the interim. Dharap pointed out that remote commenting had already been in place for two years during the pandemic.
Collins and Dauber preferred waiting for the committee to bring back a formal recommendation.
Superintendent Austin also raised questions about the legal status of allowing both in-person and Zoom comments. California Assembly Bill 361, which sunsets on Jan. 1, 2024, suspended parts of the state's public meetings law to facilitate remote meetings during the pandemic. According to Austin, the law doesn't explicitly give guidance on how to handle a blended model of Zoom and in-person participation.
Dharap and Ladomirak both said they believe that because offering Zoom comments as a second option only serves to expand access, it wouldn't run afoul of the state's public meetings law, the purpose of which is to ensure public access to government proceedings.
One particular question Austin raised is what happens if there is an internet outage during a meeting, cutting off access for online participants. AB 361 states that no action should be taken at a meeting during a disruption to remote access. Dharap said that in his view, that provision referred to meetings held solely virtually, not those using a blended model.
on Jun 10, 2022 at 3:14 pm
on Jun 10, 2022 at 3:14 pm
I know it's summer, but it's still important to pay attention to the PAUSD Board. The discussion at the board meeting was confusing with many amendments and counter-amendments. It still looks like some members want to kill Zoom commenting without appearing to kill it. I leave it to you all to speculate which members and admins are less excited about public transparency. There is no reason for Zoom commenting to go away - even if it makes meetings longer. These institutions need lots and lots of transparency. Write to the Board. Let them know we're paying attention.
on Jun 15, 2022 at 9:38 am
on Jun 15, 2022 at 9:38 am
I agree there is not enough transparency.