News

School board reduces public comment time from three to two minutes

At a future meeting, board plans to consider 30 minute overall cap per agenda item

The Palo Alto Unified School District building exterior. Photo by Veronica Weber.

When members of the public want to speak at a Palo Alto Unified school board meeting, they will now have a maximum of two minutes, rather than three minutes, the board decided in a split vote on Tuesday.

At its board meeting, the governing body voted 3-2 to reduce the public commenting time, with Jennifer DiBrienza and Jesse Ladomirak dissenting. The two student board representatives also opposed the change.

The board originally decided to review its procedures for public participation as part of a discussion over the future of Zoom commenting. When meetings went fully remote during the early days of the pandemic, the district added the option for the public to participate virtually. That option was removed last spring, prompting pushback from board member Shounak Dharap and ultimately leading the board to form an ad hoc committee to review participation guidelines.

The board voted in August to permanently enshrine Zoom commenting, but delayed a vote on two other recommendations from the ad hoc committee: reducing the maximum time per comment to two minutes and limiting the public comment on any given agenda item to a total of 30 minutes.

At this week's meeting, the board approved the two-minute maximum, but once again held off on making any decisions about the 30-minute cap per item.

Help sustain the local news you depend on.

Your contribution matters. Become a member today.

Join

Under the new system, if there are 10-15 people who want to speak on an item, the board can choose to reduce the time down to one and a half minutes per speaker. When more than 15 people show up to speak, one minute can be allotted.

Previously, speakers typically got three minutes each. That could be reduced down to two minutes when there were 10-15 speakers, one and a half minutes when there were 16-20 speakers and one minute when there were more than 20 speakers.

Board President Ken Dauber, who served on the ad hoc committee with Dharap, said that the recommendation to limit the time for public comment came in response to the fact that Zoom commenting expands opportunities for the public to speak during meetings.

"This was our thought about how to balance the increased access with the best use of the board's time in terms of both taking public comment and having the opportunity to make good decisions," Dauber said.

He said that the goal is to have public participation, while also giving the board the time to engage in full discussions and avoid having meetings run late into the night.

Stay informed

Get the latest local news and information sent straight to your inbox.

Stay informed

Get the latest local news and information sent straight to your inbox.

Not all board members agreed that reducing public comment time was the answer. DiBrienza noted that the district already had a system in place for reducing the commenting time when lots of people show up to address the board.

"I haven't heard any compelling reason why we would change what our current practice has been, (which) has had our meetings ending pretty early," DiBrienza said. "And if there are a lot of speakers, we're down to one minute each."

Ladomirak similarly said she didn't see the need to change when the board already reduces commenting time based on the number of speakers.

Todd Collins, on the other hand, said that while there isn't anything magic about two minutes specifically, the issue is about setting conditions for future boards who could find themselves in different circumstances. He noted that just a few years ago, board meetings frequently ran late into the night with many public commenters. Collins supported the reduction to two minutes.

The three commenters who addressed the board about public participation procedures all opposed the change. Parent Steven Davis said that three minutes is already a tough constraint and that many people who address the board haven't done so before and are speaking about complicated issues. He added that reducing the time for each speaker favors those who are able to speak English well.

"The voices of the community matter for the board and district to hear, but also, it is important for them to be heard by other members of the public. People learn they are not alone," Davis said.

Teachers union president Teri Baldwin and classified staff union president Meb Steiner also opposed the change.

Cap on each agenda item to come back at a future meeting

When it came to reducing the overall time for each agenda item to 30 minutes, the issue was complicated by the fact that the board had actually already voted to make the change back in 2017, but that vote was never put into practice.

Dauber and Dharap's ad hoc committee recommended having a 30-minute limit and the background information on Tuesday's agenda said that no action was needed to institute this cap because the vote was already made in 2017.

However, DiBrienza and Ladomirak raised concerns about instituting something that hadn't been used for five years. Ladomirak noted that even during the height of the debates over COVID-19 school closures and reopening, the board never invoked the 30-minute limit.

"This just kind of feels like a bait and switch to me," Ladomirak said. "I'm not comfortable that this is what we're doing right now to the community."

She said that these types of decisions can be why the community starts to mistrust government bodies, while also noting that she doesn't believe there are any nefarious reasons behind it.

Rather than make a decision on Tuesday night, the board's agenda-setting committee will review the issue and bring it back to a future meeting, Dauber said.

For his part, Dharap said that he believes a 30-minute limit is actually a way to further public participation. When too much time is spent on early agenda items, it limits time for those who want to speak on issues later in the meeting, Dharap said.

The board's bylaws call for meetings to be adjourned by 10:30 p.m., with only one extension allowed if two-thirds of the board approves it.

Dharap added that he wants it to be a requirement that comment is capped at 30 minutes, rather than something that the board can do at its discretion.

"That to me is rife with concerns about First Amendment chilling. Why is the board deciding on this particular item with this particular set of commenters to limit the time? That is rife with problems," Dharap said. "I think we need a strong process, a very clear set of guidelines that are consistently applied to every meeting."

Craving a new voice in Peninsula dining?

Sign up for the Peninsula Foodist newsletter.

Sign up now
Zoe Morgan
 
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 >>

Follow Palo Alto Online and the Palo Alto Weekly on Twitter @paloaltoweekly, Facebook and on Instagram @paloaltoonline for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

Get uninterrupted access to important local education news. Become a member today.

School board reduces public comment time from three to two minutes

At a future meeting, board plans to consider 30 minute overall cap per agenda item

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Wed, Nov 16, 2022, 9:56 am

When members of the public want to speak at a Palo Alto Unified school board meeting, they will now have a maximum of two minutes, rather than three minutes, the board decided in a split vote on Tuesday.

At its board meeting, the governing body voted 3-2 to reduce the public commenting time, with Jennifer DiBrienza and Jesse Ladomirak dissenting. The two student board representatives also opposed the change.

The board originally decided to review its procedures for public participation as part of a discussion over the future of Zoom commenting. When meetings went fully remote during the early days of the pandemic, the district added the option for the public to participate virtually. That option was removed last spring, prompting pushback from board member Shounak Dharap and ultimately leading the board to form an ad hoc committee to review participation guidelines.

The board voted in August to permanently enshrine Zoom commenting, but delayed a vote on two other recommendations from the ad hoc committee: reducing the maximum time per comment to two minutes and limiting the public comment on any given agenda item to a total of 30 minutes.

At this week's meeting, the board approved the two-minute maximum, but once again held off on making any decisions about the 30-minute cap per item.

Under the new system, if there are 10-15 people who want to speak on an item, the board can choose to reduce the time down to one and a half minutes per speaker. When more than 15 people show up to speak, one minute can be allotted.

Previously, speakers typically got three minutes each. That could be reduced down to two minutes when there were 10-15 speakers, one and a half minutes when there were 16-20 speakers and one minute when there were more than 20 speakers.

Board President Ken Dauber, who served on the ad hoc committee with Dharap, said that the recommendation to limit the time for public comment came in response to the fact that Zoom commenting expands opportunities for the public to speak during meetings.

"This was our thought about how to balance the increased access with the best use of the board's time in terms of both taking public comment and having the opportunity to make good decisions," Dauber said.

He said that the goal is to have public participation, while also giving the board the time to engage in full discussions and avoid having meetings run late into the night.

Not all board members agreed that reducing public comment time was the answer. DiBrienza noted that the district already had a system in place for reducing the commenting time when lots of people show up to address the board.

"I haven't heard any compelling reason why we would change what our current practice has been, (which) has had our meetings ending pretty early," DiBrienza said. "And if there are a lot of speakers, we're down to one minute each."

Ladomirak similarly said she didn't see the need to change when the board already reduces commenting time based on the number of speakers.

Todd Collins, on the other hand, said that while there isn't anything magic about two minutes specifically, the issue is about setting conditions for future boards who could find themselves in different circumstances. He noted that just a few years ago, board meetings frequently ran late into the night with many public commenters. Collins supported the reduction to two minutes.

The three commenters who addressed the board about public participation procedures all opposed the change. Parent Steven Davis said that three minutes is already a tough constraint and that many people who address the board haven't done so before and are speaking about complicated issues. He added that reducing the time for each speaker favors those who are able to speak English well.

"The voices of the community matter for the board and district to hear, but also, it is important for them to be heard by other members of the public. People learn they are not alone," Davis said.

Teachers union president Teri Baldwin and classified staff union president Meb Steiner also opposed the change.

Cap on each agenda item to come back at a future meeting

When it came to reducing the overall time for each agenda item to 30 minutes, the issue was complicated by the fact that the board had actually already voted to make the change back in 2017, but that vote was never put into practice.

Dauber and Dharap's ad hoc committee recommended having a 30-minute limit and the background information on Tuesday's agenda said that no action was needed to institute this cap because the vote was already made in 2017.

However, DiBrienza and Ladomirak raised concerns about instituting something that hadn't been used for five years. Ladomirak noted that even during the height of the debates over COVID-19 school closures and reopening, the board never invoked the 30-minute limit.

"This just kind of feels like a bait and switch to me," Ladomirak said. "I'm not comfortable that this is what we're doing right now to the community."

She said that these types of decisions can be why the community starts to mistrust government bodies, while also noting that she doesn't believe there are any nefarious reasons behind it.

Rather than make a decision on Tuesday night, the board's agenda-setting committee will review the issue and bring it back to a future meeting, Dauber said.

For his part, Dharap said that he believes a 30-minute limit is actually a way to further public participation. When too much time is spent on early agenda items, it limits time for those who want to speak on issues later in the meeting, Dharap said.

The board's bylaws call for meetings to be adjourned by 10:30 p.m., with only one extension allowed if two-thirds of the board approves it.

Dharap added that he wants it to be a requirement that comment is capped at 30 minutes, rather than something that the board can do at its discretion.

"That to me is rife with concerns about First Amendment chilling. Why is the board deciding on this particular item with this particular set of commenters to limit the time? That is rife with problems," Dharap said. "I think we need a strong process, a very clear set of guidelines that are consistently applied to every meeting."

Comments

Palo Alto Res
Registered user
Downtown North
on Nov 16, 2022 at 11:30 am
Palo Alto Res, Downtown North
Registered user
on Nov 16, 2022 at 11:30 am

Apparently parent participation and involvement is a negative issue that needs to be dealt with according to PAUSD Board Trustee members (all the men) who voted to limit public speaking time during Board meetings.

First it was trying to limit access by removing Zoom. Then it was voting to limit speaking time by the community members. Third time is trying to reduce the cap on agenda items.
Truly it appears it is about community participation (or the fact too many people participate) and seems Board wants a community that nods their head and gives them full power to do what they will without any input or thought or opinion from the community.

Once Is Chance, Twice is Coincidence, Third Time's A Pattern.

If time is such an essence and it bothers someone to have the Board meetings run late, then get off the Board. Many people who want to serve and they are not counting the minutes click by.


Michelle
Registered user
Professorville
on Nov 16, 2022 at 11:44 am
Michelle, Professorville
Registered user
on Nov 16, 2022 at 11:44 am

The majority board vote (Dauber, Collins, Dharap) to reduce public speaking time limits from a standard 3-minutes down to 2-minutes is hugely disappointing. I appreciate our 2 board members, DiBrienza and Ladomirak, voted against this decision along with the 3 public commenters.
Dharap rightly framed continuing to allow comments via zoom as an equity and access issue. This is also an equity and access issue! Shortening speaking times favors the privileged, those who are already practiced at public speaking and have the time to carefully craft their comments to fit within these limits and still get their message across. It very much works against those for whom English is their second language, those who have language processing and other disabilities, and some elderly commenters.
Skilled and practiced speakers, the ones who consistently show up to board meetings, will continue to get their message across without issue. The board majority just ensured that those who we are already least likely to hear from in a public forum will be even less likely to show up and if they do speak less likely to be able to fully convey their concerns, and likely to leave feeling discouraged and diminished.
I hope that the board will at least consider creating an easy to access process whereby speakers who fit into protected classes (age, disability or language) are able to request an accommodation to increase their speaking time. Better yet, let's hope the board reverses this troubling decision.


Bystander
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 16, 2022 at 5:03 pm
Bystander, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Nov 16, 2022 at 5:03 pm

This is basically taking away polite discourse. It means that a prepared comment will contain no polite introductions, no final summing up, and a breathless comment which will be squeezed to the bare minimum which will probably be hard to understand.

There are some who manage to speed up TED talks to double speed so that they can listen to them quickly, but to really understand the full content of a comment, it needs to be done slowly with time to let the information sink in.

Basically, as I said above, it will mean that there is no time whatsoever to get any facts across, quote any data, and have an opinion on the facts and data and consequently the public will not be heard.


MyFeelz
Registered user
JLS Middle School
on Nov 16, 2022 at 5:53 pm
MyFeelz, JLS Middle School
Registered user
on Nov 16, 2022 at 5:53 pm

From the ADA . gov site:

“Under Title II of the ADA, all state and local governments are required to take steps to ensure that their communications with people with disabilities are as effective as communications with others.”

“How is communication with individuals with disabilities different from communication with people without disabilities? For most individuals with disabilities, there is no difference. But people who have disabilities that affect hearing, seeing, speaking, reading, writing, or understanding may use different ways to communicate than people who do not.”

“The effective communication requirement applies to ALL members of the public with disabilities, including job applicants, program participants, and even people who simply contact state or local government agencies seeking information about programs, services, or activities.”

This is federal law. Cities can’t just decide to limit the listening, hearing, or understanding of public discourse for all people without discriminating against those with disabilities in those arenas.

The School Board, of all entities, should be well-versed in the laws pertaining to effective communications. If you’re going to run a school, you should know how the civics laws work. Not only do some people have speech barriers, but many can't hear what this plan will end up sounding like: An auctioneer selling ice cream on a hot day. "SOLD to the highest bidder". The failure to allow ALL the public their civil rights to participate could result in a federal ADA lawsuit.


Helen Wilcox
Registered user
Community Center
on Nov 17, 2022 at 8:22 am
Helen Wilcox, Community Center
Registered user
on Nov 17, 2022 at 8:22 am

Is there a filibuster option for key topics?


Anony Mouse
Registered user
Professorville
on Nov 17, 2022 at 3:21 pm
Anony Mouse, Professorville
Registered user
on Nov 17, 2022 at 3:21 pm

No there is no filibuster option. This actually reduces public voice on hot topics. Elections matter. The incumbent was resoundingly beaten but Shana Segal. This issue was voted in by an outgoing member, a lame duck and an incumbent who lost almost 2:1 to a challenger. This is the arrogance we are trying to eliminate. PAUSD is not a business. It's democracy. Slow, tedious, tiring but most of all inclusive. Sorry, that means long meetings. This policy represents a step backward. And it was arguably an undemocratic vote given the status of who voted. Please revisit this when the new board is seated.


Palo Alto Res
Registered user
Downtown North
on Nov 18, 2022 at 8:15 am
Palo Alto Res, Downtown North
Registered user
on Nov 18, 2022 at 8:15 am

Well that is the irony. Democracy has checks and balances and provides the opportunity for critical thinking, and discourse before a decision is reached. The Board, in reducing public speaking time, as well as attempting to reduce the time on agendized items is their method of reducing democracy and silencing the voices other than their own.

To: Shounak Dharap, Todd Collins, and Ken Dauber, get off the Board and resign if the once a month PAUSD Board meetings where parents, teachers, students and community members speak up with their thoughts, concerns and worries.

If once a month meetings are so onerous because it goes too long for you, get off the Board now. You're not doing anyone any favors other than holding onto power for whatever self serving need you have.


Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
Registered user
Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 18, 2022 at 5:57 pm
Resident 1-Adobe Meadows, Adobe-Meadow
Registered user
on Nov 18, 2022 at 5:57 pm

We need the board to state what their philosophy is regarding all of the alternate topics which are being touted now. We are the taxpayers and collectivley have a right to hold the board accountable for teaching the SMART subjcts that our children need to succeed in life. We are not a sociology experiment. The biggest problem I see now is having qualified teachers who can teach the SMART required subjects.


MyFeelz
Registered user
another community
on Nov 19, 2022 at 3:37 pm
MyFeelz, another community
Registered user
on Nov 19, 2022 at 3:37 pm

@Palo Alto Res, sometimes these seats are just stepping stones to other seats that demand less time, less attention, and more payola. They stay until they can get their foot on the next higher rung. And sometimes they want to make the current seat fit the seats they really aspire to (see "less time, less attention").


Emily H
Registered user
Professorville
on Nov 20, 2022 at 9:59 am
Emily H, Professorville
Registered user
on Nov 20, 2022 at 9:59 am

This is not a surprise to anyone who has been following the direction the board has been going since they installed DA. We like “One Palo Alto” when we are in National News, but that’s it. How can we spin it to the press is the way Churchill thinks. This is a disservice that will have ramifications for students and families even after this boys club is gone.


Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.

Post a comment

In order to encourage respectful and thoughtful discussion, commenting on stories is available to those who are registered users. If you are already a registered user and the commenting form is not below, you need to log in. If you are not registered, you can do so here.

Please make sure your comments are truthful, on-topic and do not disrespect another poster. Don't be snarky or belittling. All postings are subject to our TERMS OF USE, and may be deleted if deemed inappropriate by our staff.

See our announcement about requiring registration for commenting.